Ronaldo has last chance to shine in World Cup
Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo, who has been named the best player in the world five times, will arrive in Qatar with a mission to prove that he can still make a difference.
It is indisputable that Ronaldo is one of the greatest forwards of all time but his latest struggles with Manchester United and Portugal have raised many questions about whether his brilliant career is nearing a bitter end.
Ronaldo is the leading scorer in the history of men's international football with 117 goals in 191 official matches.
Between his first Portugal goal versus Greece at Euro 2004 and his most recent, a double against Switzerland in June 2022, 18 years have passed, making him a model of longevity.
He has scored 818 goals in his career and holds the record for the most Champions League goals in the competition's history with 140.
However, for a model athlete who got used to breaking records playing for some of the biggest clubs in the world, like Real Madrid, Juventus and Manchester United, his current form and attitude have been under the spotlight.
His brace versus the Swiss in the Nations League were his only goals in the 10 games Portugal have played in the last year.
With United he has scored just three times this season and his problems with manager Erik ten Hag have made headlines, with Ronaldo struggling to get into the starting team and expressing his dissatisfaction over the lack of minutes.
He was United's top scorer last season with 24 goals in all competitions after joining them from Juve. His contract is due to expire in June 2023, though United have an option to extend by a further year.
In his fifth World Cup, Ronaldo will arrive captaining a team of standout players who are widely seen as among the world's best but who have arguably underachieved on the biggest stage.
After reaching the World Cup semi-finals in 2006, they were knocked out twice in the last 16 (2010 and 2018) and at the group stage in 2014.
But even though the impression is that Ronaldo's brilliant path is coming to an end, he begs to differ.
"There is still a little more of Cristiano left. I'm part of a young team, I want to be in the World Cup but also in the next Euros," Ronaldo said at an event in Portugal in September.
A relentless mentality that could be the key to him making a statement with his country in Qatar against all odds.
TALENTED PORTUGAL AIMING TO SHAKE OFF UNDERACHIEVERS TAG
One of Portugal's best generations of players, led by Cristiano Ronaldo in the twilight of his career, will arrive at the World Cup with the pressure of proving they are not underachievers.
The Portuguese soccer landscape has been drastically transformed over the past two decades as the country evolved from a mid-level team into one of the world's best, with the country being viewed as a talent machine.
Bruno Fernandes, Rafael Leao, Joao Felix, Joao Cancelo, Ruben Neves, Bernardo Silva, Vitinha and others will make Portugal, on paper, one of the best teams man-for-man in Qatar. But the reality is different from the theory with Portugal.
The rise of forward Cristiano Ronaldo and manager Jose Mourinho had a major impact on the country's soccer culture, leading them to the Euro 2004 final and Euro 2016 triumph.
However, the impact of Portugal's Euros success is fading fast and winning the Nations League title at home in 2019 has not eased the criticism with recent outings disappointing.
They lost in in the last 16 at Euro 2020, failed to qualify for the finals at the last two Nations League editions and had to go through the playoffs to rech this year's World Cup.
Their latest defeat at home to Spain in their final match of the Nations League group stage sparked criticism aimed towards manager Fernando Santos and captain Ronaldo.
Fans and local media are questioning if the time has come for the veteran coach to step down and for Ronaldo to pass the baton to the new generation and assume a secondary role in a team full of young and talented players.
The latest crop are part of the elite but have not been able to shine in the national team due to the insistence on moulding and adapting their game to accomomodate Ronaldo.
After losing 1-0 against Spain in Braga in October, when Portugal dominated possession but wasted chances only to see their savvy neighbours score the winner in added time, Santos had to answer several questions about his future.
"I have a contract until 2024 and I intend on honouring it until the end," he firmly told reporters.
If the pressure of the latest results was not enough, the coach must tackle two different problems up front - the absence of injured Liverpool forward Diogo Jota and Joao Felix's poor form at Atletico Madrid, where the 120 million euro ($118.56 million) striker has become a bench warmer this season.
PORTUGAL AT THE WORLD CUP
Following is a statbox on Portugal at the World Cup.
FIFA Ranking: 9
Portugal made their World Cup debut in England in 1966, knocking out champions Brazil and reaching the semi-finals, finishing in third place, which is their best result in the tournament. They participated only once between 1966 and 1998, in Mexico 1986, but have qualified for every edition since 2002. They reached the semis again in 2006, losing 1-0 to France. Since then they have not got further than the last 16, losing to eventual champions Spain in 2010 and to Uruguay in 2018. In Brazil 2014 they were knocked out in the group stage.
How they qualified:
Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal had to go through the pain of the playoffs after losing 2-1 at home in their final group stage game against Serbia to an Aleksandar Mitrovic goal in added time when they only needed a draw to reach Qatar as Group A winners. Instead, they had to beat Turkey (3-1) and North Macedonia (2-0) in playoff games at Porto to book their trip to the tournament.
Pressure and criticism are high for underachievers Portugal who have had a series of disappointing results since winning the opening edition of the Nations League at home in 2019. They were knocked out by Belgium in the last 16 of the European Championships in 2021, had to go through the playoffs to qualify for the World Cup and failed to reach the final four of the Nations League for the second consecutive year.