The focus of Portugal's Euro 2012 campaign will be Cristiano Ronaldo, and he'll ultimately get the most credit or most blame depending on whether the team succeeds or fails. But no matter what Ronaldo does, it's unlikely to be enough to help Portugal achieve what casual observers expect of them. Quite simply, they're an average team in Euro 2012, and Ronaldo is the only reason anyone thinks of them as a legitimate contender.
Because Ronaldo is such a huge name, Group B has come to be labeled as the 'group of death' at Euro 2012, but Germany and the Netherlands are as clear of favorites as there are to advance in any group. It's going to take a near miracle for Portugal to get out, and Ronaldo is going to be leaned on heavily.
Like he does for Real Madrid, Ronaldo will play on the left side of an attacking formation, regularly cutting in onto his right foot to look for shooting opportunities. Portugal, however, does not have a player like Mesut Özil to play off of when he drifts inside. Portugal don't play with a No. 10, mostly because they don't have one. The quality of their midfield doesn't compare favorably with any of the other teams in Group B, through no fault of any of the players on the roster or manager Paulo Bento. Portugal simply isn't producing playmakers or destroyers.
Most three-man midfields in the world are made up of three different kinds of players that compliment each other. There's no right or wrong way to put together a midfield, as long as the midfield is put together with players who have varied skill sets, or at the very least, skill sets that fit the specific system of the team. Some teams have a deep-lying playmaker, an energy guy and a goal-scoring attacking midfielder. Some teams play with a destroyer, a technical link-up player and an advanced playmaker.
That middle guy -- the link-up player or energy man -- is sort of a glue guy. He doesn't do a lot to shut down the attacks of the opposition or create goals, at least directly. He just makes life easier for all of the other players and allows them to do their specific jobs without worrying about doing the jobs of other people. These players are extremely useful, but should not be the centerpiece of anyone's team. They're there to make playmakers and destroyers better.
Portugal doesn't have any true central playmakers, of either the trequarista or regista variety. They don't have an accomplished destroyer or holding player. They're basically a nation filled with midfield glue guys, and they play with three of them in the center of their midfield. Raul Meireles, Joao Moutinho and Miguel Veloso will be asked to play the roles of attacking midfielder, deep-lying playmaker and destroyer, respectably. Meireles can run, Moutinho can pass and Veloso can tackle, but they're never asked to play these roles for their club teams.
Meireles is always playing with John Obi Mikel, a better distributor, or Frank Lampard, a better attacking player. Moutinho has spent his Porto career playing with Fredy Guarin and Lucho Gonzalez, both of whom are much more creative than he is. Veloso isn't playing regularly for Genoa, and Genoa aren't a very good team. They're a midfield full of guys who are good at lots of things, but not great at anything, all trying to be great at one thing. There is a very good chance that this plan will fail miserably. Their midfield was probably the biggest reason that they lost a decisive qualifying match to Euro group-mates Denmark, and were forced to qualify via a playoff.
However, there is plenty to like about Portugal beyond Cristiano Ronaldo. Their back four and goalkeeper are very solid and versatile, and can match up against anyone in the world. Sporting Lisbon goalkeeper Rui Patricio could be using Euro 2012 as a shop window, and could very well be moving on to a bigger league and bigger wages after the tournament. In front of him are Pepe and Bruno Alves, two men that no one wants to run into in a dark alley at night. They're both very athletic and brilliant in the air, but sometimes hurt their team by picking up unnecessary bookings.
Because Ronaldo and fellow winger Nani will cut inside regularly, Portugal's fullbacks will be key, and they have two excellent ones. Fabio Coentrao is one of the best attacking left backs in the world, and he isn't even first choice for his club team because Real Madrid's Marcelo is probably the best attacking left back in the world. Opposite him will be Joao Pereira, who has starred for Sporting Lisbon in recent years. He recently agreed to a move to Valencia, where he should take over as the starting right back.
The biggest question mark for Portugal is up top at striker. The midfield doesn't really qualify as a question mark because there is no unknown quality; Portugal's midfield has basically no chance of being either embarrassing or great. Their striker situation is entirely different because it's a total wild card. Hugo Almeida and Helder Postiga have had very up and down club and international careers, but their scoring records are respectable. Young striker Nelson Oliveira isn't first choice for his club team Benfica, but he's easily the most talented of the bunch. Portugal could get nothing from their strikers, or they could conceivably get a lot of production from the players up top.
Projected lineup (4-3-3)
GK Rui Patricio LB Fabio Coentrao CB Bruno Alves CB Pepe RB Joao Pereira CM Miguel Veloso CM Joao Moutinho CM Raul Meireles LF Cristiano Ronaldo CF Helder Postiga RF Nani
Cristiano Ronaldo: It goes without playing that that the captain, most capped player and either best or second best attacking player in the world will be key for his national team. Portugal can't depend on him to do everything, but they're unlikely to get out of the group stage if he doesn't score a couple of goals.
Third or fourth in Group B: Paulo Bento's Portugal are much better than the previous Carlos Quieroz team, but they're not going anywhere in a group stocked with Germany, the Netherlands, and a Denmark team that beat them less than a year ago in a competitive match. Ronaldo's good enough to guide them to a miracle run, but don't count on it.