Portugal v Hungary, World Cup qualifier, October 9, 2009
Portugal are set to become one of the biggest nations to fail to reach the 2010 World Cup as Carlos Queiroz prepares his charges for their final two matches of a disastrous qualifying campaign against Hungary and Malta.
It should have been plain-sailing for the Portuguese. With the below-par Scandinavian nations of Denmark and Sweden to contend with, it would have taken a brave punter to have predicted that Cristiano Ronaldo (4/7 to score) et al would be missing from South Africa, but a combination of a lack of a goalscorer and too many draws has left the Euro 2008 quarter-finalists praying for a miracle.
The equation is simple for Portugal: they must win both of their final two matches and hope Sweden drop points to reach the playoffs. Automatic qualification is already a lost cause.
With incredible pressure to perform, Queiroz has a series of headaches to overcome as his squad impersonates the walking wounded.
Having missed Real Madrid’s defeat against Sevilla, question-marks hover over Cristiano Ronaldo’s fitness heading into the final two games. Despite his ankle injury, it seems improbable that the World Player of the Year will sit out the matches on the sideline despite CR9’s fitness being below his usual tip-top standards.
Also carrying knocks are midfielders Tiago (11/4 to score), Nuno Assis (returning after a 9-year absence), Duda while Chelsea’s right-back Jose Bosingwa, who has also been missing from action in recent weeks, is also far from being match fit. To compensate, Queiroz has called up Malaga forward Edinho and Glasgow Rangers’ Pedro Mendes.
Despite all the doom and gloom, Portugal still have a squad jam-packed with quality. At the back, Bruno Alves (11/2 to score), Ricardo Carvalho (20/1 to score first) and Pepe are all tough, uncompromising and talented defenders who can also be a goal-threat from dead-balls at the other end of the pitch. The centre of the park is also sprinkled with ball-players and tricksters with Joao Moutinho (6/1 to score), Miguel Veloso (12/1 to score last) and Raul Meireles all available alongside Chelsea’s Deco (6/4 to score).
But Portugal’s biggest issues are up-front. Without a goalscorer since the days of Pauleta (and ignoring the obvious quip that Pauleta was hardly a goal-getter extraordinaire), Queiroz has failed to unearth any new attacking tactics throughout the qualifiers. Ronaldo has often been forced to lead the line, with Nani (6/1 to score last) and Simao commissioned with providing supporting roles from wide areas. But such tactics have floundered with the Selecao only scoring 10 goals in eight matches.
Instead of blooding youngsters or developing new tactics to help his attack, Queiroz has opted to take short-cuts wherever possible. This has resulted in yet another Brazilian ringer being drafted into the side, Sporting Lisbon striker Liedson (4/1 to score first) has recently been naturalised in order to lead the attack.
For Hungary, currently fourth-placed in the group, whilst they are currently level pegging with the Portuguese it seems unbelievably unlikely that they will win in Lisbon and then again in Denmark on Wednesday to claim second-place for themselves.
Showing their lack of depth, Hungarian coach Erwin Koeman has been forced to call up two ex-Crystal Place players – Gabor Kiraly and Sander Torghelle (10/3 to score)– who both ply their trade in Germany’s second top division. More lower league players familiar to British audiences will see Cardiff’s Gabor Gyepes look for a starting spot in the back four, while Hull’s Peter Halmosi (6/1 to score), Zoltan Gera (Fulham) and Akos Buzsaky (QPR) will battle it out for places in the midfield. In attack, Ipswich striker Tamas Priskin (10/1 to score first) will hope to bang in the goals.
Portugal, even down to the bare bones, should have too much quality to let a must-win match slip through their fingers. The problem is though that their fate is no longer in their own hands.
101predicts: Portugal 2 – Hungary 0 (9/2)
Full match odds here.