More questions than answers for Portugal after Iran scare

SARANSK, RUSSIA - JUNE 25: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Iran and Portugal at Mordovia Arena on June 25, 2018 in Saransk, Russia. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images)
SARANSK, RUSSIA - JUNE 25: Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal during the 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia group B match between Iran and Portugal at Mordovia Arena on June 25, 2018 in Saransk, Russia. (Photo by Jean Catuffe/Getty Images) /

Portugal survived a late scare against Iran to qualify for the knockout stages of the World Cup. Can they go all the way?

Drawn alongside Iran, Morocco and Spain, Portugal were considered favorites to progress from their group to the knockout stages of the World Cup. Following a thrilling draw with Spain in their opening match, they overcame a resilient Morocco side in Mordovia and headed into Monday’s fixture against Iran knowing that a point would be enough to secure their progression.

An outside-of-the-boot worldie from Ricardo Quaresma set them on their way before Cristiano Ronaldo spurned the chance to draw level with top goalscorer Harry Kane when he missed a second-half penalty. Iran responded with a penalty of their own in the dying minutes to set up a nervous finish to the match for the Portugal. They survived but the result means they finish behind Spain in Group B and will face Uruguay in the next round.

The draw was enough to secure them a spot in the knockout rounds but the performance highlighted the fact that the reigning European champions have been far from fluid thus far. Five goals in three matches is a solid return but a lack of goal spread and defensive fragility will be a concern for manager Fernando Santos.

Prior to Quaresma’s strike against Iran, Ronaldo had been responsible for all of Portugal’s goals at the tournament. The Real Madrid star broke a host of records with his goalscoring exploits along the way but was let down by his supporting cast. Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Guedes both disappointed in the opening matches and Andre Silva fared little better against Iran.

At the other end of the pitch, much was made of Portugal’s aging defense before the tournament. Pepe and Jose Fonte are both at the wrong end of 30 and the former was found out by Diego Costa against Spain. With the full-backs encouraged to get forward, Portugal’s veteran center-backs have been found out on occasion and Uruguay will certainly look to to exploit them on the break.

While Ronaldo has starred and the defense faltered, one player has quietly gone about his business in the center of the park for Portugal. Despite the controversy surrounding Sporting Lisbon and his and other players’ contracts with the club, William Carvalho has been a rock in the heart of midfield for Portugal. The 26-year-old has been the most consistent performer in Santos’ side and will be integral should the nation stand any chance of seriously competing for the title.

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The fact that Portugal haven’t hit the ground running yet isn’t necessarily a bad thing. During their successful European campaign two years ago they drew all three of their group stage fixtures and required extra-time in all-but one of their knockout matches. The Portuguese have become accustomed to grinding out ugly wins and it is a hallmark of their game which could hold them in good stead in Russia.

Santos won’t be banking on that though, and the wily old manager will have some decisions to make moving forward. The first of those is whether or not to stick or twist with Guedes and Bernardo Silva. The pair both impressed during Portugal’s warm-up matches but have failed to deliver at the tournament proper. Quaresma staked a claim for a spot with his strong showing against Iran and Santos may feel that his experience will be invaluable in the knockout matches. Andre Silva was less impressive against the Iranians but his form in qualifying, which saw him plunder nine goals, may well encourage the gaffer to stick him up top with Ronaldo.

Whoever leads the line for will need to be in top form though, as their next opponents Uruguay did not concede a goal on their way to topping their group. Portugal’s defensive shortcomings will also be tested against the two-time World Cup winners who boast a prolific striker force in the form of Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani. Spain are ranked higher in FIFA’s rankings but given the stakes involved Uruguay will pose a far greater threat to Portugal and their chances of claiming a first ever title of their own.