There are three consistent premier players in Russia who will not just have to shoulder the burden of their expectant nation, but embrace and
thrive on that pressure. Neymar with Brazil is one, Lionel Messi and Argentina the other, but Ballon d’Or favourite Cristiano Ronaldo arguably bares the heaviest load.
Fernando Santos’ side didn’t have the best start to qualifying after losing 2-0 in Basel in September 2016, but they then won nine on the bounce, including a pivotal final fixture against Switzerland in Lisbon, by the same scoreline, to snatch automatic qualification. People will label them a one-man team.
‘What happens if Ronaldo gets injured?’, they’ll say. Well, a) that won’t happen, Ronaldo is a tank. And b) more importantly, that’s also not true.
There are pockets of talent across the rest of the squad, with Santos having a wealth of exciting young players at his disposal, including emerging stars like AC Milan forward Andre Silva, Gelson Martins at Sporting and Valencia’s loanee from Paris Saint-Germain, Goncalo Guedes.
He also has seasoned old heads like Ronaldo, Pepe, Jose Fonte, Joao Moutinho and Ricardo Quaresma to help guide the new generation and balance out the squad.
Let’s also not forget that Portugal played the majority of the Euro 2016 final without their talisman, after he was forced off 25 minutes into the game with a knee injury. His side were without him for over 95 minutes as the game went to extra time – scenes of him animatedly hopping on the touchline alongside Santos truly memorable.
Two important things stand out. This is a side that now know how to play tournament football; success in France proved that.
They’re also battle-hardened, proving their worth as an elite nation after years of threatening to be just a flash in the pan.
At Euro 2016 they were solid yet unspectacular, progressing to the knockouts by the skin of their teeth following three draws.
The only team they beat by more than one goal was Wales in the semi-final.
Far from using this as a stick to beat Portugal with, it proves their resilience. Able to go deep in the latter rounds, they are one of only a handful of sides to take with them the experience of success.
In previous major finals, they’ve impressed but ultimately fallen short. They crumbled as heavy favourites against Greece in Euro 2004 and wilted in a semi-final penalty shootout against Spain eight years later.
In 2006 a stacked team fell to France in the World Cup semis.
For the sake of Ronaldo and his Ballon d’Or bid, Portugal will need to draw on their 2016 success.
The iconic Real Madrid star was said to be suffering a slump this season. Yeah, right. Despite the criticism he has fought back emphatically to show his enduring, indomitable class, leading Los Blancos to a fourth Champions League final triumph in five years and scoring 42 goals in 40 games.
A hulk of a man who wouldn’t look out of place as a villain in a James Bond film, Santos will hope to direct another cinematic spectacular for Portugal, two years on from their epic European Championship victory.
Say what you will about a man who is often accused of letting his ego overshadow his undoubted talent, but Ronaldo is all about the collective. His driven attitude and ferocious will are apt qualities in a leader.
The 21-year-old enjoyed a superb season on loan at the resurgent Valencia, announcing himself as a star in the first half of the season offering raw explosive power and bursts of speed. A great profile to make an impact from the bench.
KEY FACTS AND STATS
– Milan youngster Andre Silva became the youngest player to score a hat-trick for his country during qualifying, aged 20 years, 11 months and four days when he netted three in a 6-0 win against the Faroe Islands in October 2016
– Cristiano Ronaldo scored 15 goals in European qualifying, second only to Robert Lewandowski’s 16
– Eusebio holds the record of scoring most goals for Portugal at a World Cup, bagging nine at the 1966 tournament in England
82 DEF 83 MID 88 ATT
World Cups competed at
7 (First in 1966)
World Cup record
P26, W13, D4, l9
P10, W9, L1
Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Beto (Goztepe), Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon).
Bruno Alves (Rangers), Cedric Soares (Southampton), Jose Fonte (Dalian Yifang), Mario Rui (Napoli), Pepe (Besiktas), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), Ricardo Pereira (Porto), Ruben Dias (Benfica).
Adrien Silva (Leicester), Bruno Fernandes (Sporting Lisbon), Joao Mario (West Ham), Joao Moutinho (Monaco), Manuel Fernandes (Lokomotiv Moscow), William Carvalho (Sporting Lisbon).
Andre Silva (AC Milan), Bernardo Silva (Man City), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Gelson Martins (Sporting Lisbon), Goncalo Guedes (Valencia), Ricardo Quaresma (Besiktas).
Always had the quality, but tended to be a level below the elite. Now with a major trophy to their name, they could be real contenders.
The Southampton left-back did not make the final 23 for the tournament in Russia, which starts next week.
Some observers suggested Ashley Young and Fabian Delph, who are both options for Southgate at left-back, were picked for their versatility, but Bertrand believes he is well suited to the system England use.
He told the Daily Mail: “I played wing back in a five at the end of the season, which is how England play. I also played in a central three for Southampton with Virgin van Dijk and Jose Fonte, and we went on Southampton’s record clean sheet run, six on the bounce.
“I played left midfield in a Champions League final for Chelsea. It is perhaps an oversight in the manager’s analysis and I find that hard to take.”
Southgate called Bertrand to tell him he would not be part of the squad, but the harder conversation for the 28-year-old was the one which followed with his mother.
“That was hard. She was upset,” he added.
“She was the one always there on the touchline with me as a kid. On those cold Sunday mornings and wet Tuesday nights when I was at Gillingham, we dreamed about World Cups.”
It is just a matter of days until Gareth Southgate’s Three Lions head east on the back of a preparation camp as smooth as anyone at the Football Association could have hoped.
The England manager has some tough calls to make ahead of the Group G opener against Tunisia, but many believe he has already settled on Jordan Pickford as his starting goalkeeper.
The Everton goalkeeper’s ability on the ball appears to have given him the edge over Butland, who has long been viewed as Joe Hart’s successor having performed so impressively for club and country over the years.
Despite Pickford being handed the number one shirt for Russia, the Stoke shot-stopper has not given up on starting the June 18 opener and spoke eloquently about the importance of the ‘goalkeepers’ union’ this summer.
“You are all in the same boat,” Butland said.
“Whether you play or whether you’re on the bench, or however it may be, at some point in your career you will be one of those three roles.
“You will either be a young, up-and-coming goalkeeper watching the experienced one, you’ll either be on the bench or you’ll be in goal yourself.
“We all understand the importance of the support, the importance of the group that you have around you because no one person can succeed fully if you don’t have the support of everyone else.
“It’s important that you’re humble and that you’re respectful and you put all pride aside. Whoever gets selected can’t succeed without the support and backing of the other two.
“Regardless of what happens, I want to be part of a successful England team and if I have to swallow my pride and disappointment at not being the number one, then I’ve got to do that for us to be successful and obviously to help whoever is in goal perform at their best.”
Pickford started last weekend’s 2-1 friendly win against Nigeria, with Butland getting the nod for Thursday’s 2-0 defeat of Costa Rica at Elland Road.
“Obviously there’s no official release or indication as to yet exactly who that starting line-up is going to be for Tunisia,” 25-year-old Butland said.
“So, until then, until that changes, I am going to continue to try and stake my claim and train and perform as well as I can.
“And if I get the opportunity, I will be ready to take it. And if not, I’ll be as good as a supporting player as I can be.”
Burnley goalkeeper Nick Pope came off the bench for his debut on Thursday and completes an inexperienced goalkeeping trio boasting a mere 12 caps between them.
Butland accounts for eight of them and has gone away with his country on a variety of occasions, having been in the squad for Euro 2012, the London 2012 Olympics and a variety of development team tournaments.
“It feels like a long time coming,” said the 2010 Under-17 European champion.
“It feels like something I’ve always been striving for and throughout the age groups I’ve always been lucky enough to be part of the young tournaments.
“But this is what we’ve always wanted to be a part of since a kid. Wearing the England shirt is amazing but wearing an England shirt at the World Cup is as good as it gets.
“So, yeah, it’s something that I think we’ve all dreamt of, whether we were fans or a player, so to be a part of that is awesome. It’s my first opportunity to go to a senior World Cup.
“I’ve been to an Under-20 World Cup in Colombia, which was insane. It was bigger than I ever thought it could be and I know this World Cup is going to be incredible.
“To be able to watch, to be a part of it, the excitement is obviously through the roof from everyone.
“Embrace and enjoy it as much as you can because these are special moments as a fan and as a player.”