Qualified: 1st in UEFA Group B, 9-0-1, 27 pts
Manager: Fernando Santos
Best Finish: Third (1966)
Last Appearance: 2014, Knocked out in Group Stage finished 3rd in group
Strengths: Cristiano Ronaldo, who has a few more strike partners this time around. And a stingy/disciplined defense.
Weaknesses: Over-reliance on Ronaldo. An aging central defense in Pepe and Jose Fonte or the ageless Bruno Alves could prove their Achilles heel in games against speedier opponents.
Who was left behind: Renato Sanches (Swansea City on loan from FC Bayern), Eder (Lokomotiv Moscow on loan from Lille), Nani (Lazio on loan from Valencia)
Analysis: There’s a tendency to over exaggerate Portugal’s abilities. With Ronaldo, it’s easy to see why. But, their win at the European Championships two years ago in France was more of a fluke than due to their quality. In the group phase, the Portuguese side didn’t win a game and finished third behind Hungary and Iceland—both teams weaker than Iran’s current side. It took them until the semi-finals to win a game in regular time. And, at the last World Cup, they finished third behind Germany, the eventual champions, and the US.
Portugal will rely on a tried and true method of reducing risk, while maximizing rewards. They’ll mirror the strategies and tactics that won Leicester City the EPL title—essentially, they drag teams down to their level. Look for stingy defending combined with a more direct style when transitioning to offense. Even in their offensive third, however, there’s a tendency to think defensively. They like to cross the ball from the corner of the penalty box, as opposed to taking it closer to the goal line. This tactic allows them to be better positioned to stop a counter attack. Crosses will look to find Ronaldo or whoever is chosen to be his strike partner—and there are plenty of options.
They will likely line up in a 4-4-2, but then transition to a 4-3-3 when moving from defense to offense. Bernardo Silva will be tasked with pushing up and providing the third option in attack.
Defensively, the Portuguese will be forced to rely on the aging Pepe, Jose Fonte, and Bruno Alves. They’ll likely be exposed in their first match against Spain.
In my opinion, based on the games I’ve watched, Portugal actually seems more dynamic with Ronaldo off the pitch. The team seems to rely on him too much to carry the load. But without him, they become multi-dimensional and more free flowing. That said, it’s hard to top the quality that Ronnie brings to the table.
How to beat them: Eliminate their ability to counter-attack. Utilize a strong holding midfield player to stop/prevent quick outlet passes to either of Portugal’s wing midfield options. Pressure their aging and less mobile center backs, force them to make clumsy tackles (which they’re all apt to do) and bad passes out of the back. Wing players should try to go deeper when in possession and play the ball back in between the defensive and midfield lines. Teams have created several opportunities this way versus the European Champions.
While it’s important not to lose focus on Ronaldo, teams shouldn’t forget about everyone else. There are several other potentially dangerous players lining up with the Portuguese captain.
Iran’s Chances: Hopefully, Iran will have the gotten the results they need to progress before this game. Nonetheless, I’m bullish. Iran possesses the skill sets necessary to beat a team like Portugal. If they press at the right times, they can force their aging opponents into mistakes. On the defensive side, they’ll have Saeid Ezatolahi for this game, unlike in their first against Morocco. He will be key to preventing a Portuguese counter-attack and monitoring CR7.
Possible Spanish Starting 11: I pulled this from the Guardian. As I said before, Bernardo Silva will likely become a third striker or winger when Portugal moves from defense to offense. This tactical adjustment forces Soares to push up to provide him cover. Guedes is certainly on form at the moment, but Andre Silva could also make a start alongside Ronaldo, instead.