Doha, Nov 16 (IANS) With the 2022 FIFA World Cup approaching, the participating teams are all fine-tuning their preparations for the quadrennial gala.
The star-studded Portugal led by Cristiano Ronaldo are the favourites in Group H, but it is by no means a one-horse race, as Uruguay, South Korea and Ghana will all have what it takes to make the competition wide open.
Portugal enter the scene on November 24 by taking on Ghana, then meet Uruguay before their final group game with South Korea.
In 2018, Portugal crashed out in the round of 16 after a 2-1 defeat to Uruguay. And in Brazil in 2014, Portugal suffered a group stage exit despite a 2-1 victory over Ghana. Pushing the timeline backwards further, South Korea enjoyed a shock win over Portugal en route to their history-making success in 2002.
For the 2016 European champions, their confidence comes from superstar Ronaldo. The 37-year-old Manchester United hitman has struggled for consistent playing time under coach Erik ten Hag this season, and looks unlikely to play for the Red Devils again after criticising the club in an explosive TV appearance, but he is arguably the trump card for Portugal at international level, reports Xinhua.
Diogo Jota is a huge loss for head coach Fernando Santos on the forward line, but Rafael Leao will fill the important role in the absence of the Liverpool forward. Tipped as AC Milan’s ace player, Leao has exploded onto the scene in recent years.
In midfield, Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes have the ability to move the needle, while the partnership between veteran Pepe and stalwart Ruben Dias has always been a sturdy presence at the back, with full-back Joao Cancelo pushing the ball down the flank into the opposition third and also lending a hand on the defensive side.
Ronaldo has clarified his intention to continue playing for his country until Euro 2024, but given his condition, this may be his last chance to lift the World Cup.
Considered Portugal’s biggest threat, Uruguay attracted attention before kick-off as they announced their 26-man squad through a well-designed video that went viral, but the two-time World Champions need to be sharper on the pitch in what will likely be the last World Cup appearance for Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, Diego Godin, Fernando Muslera and Martin Caceres.
A dismal start to the qualifying campaign saw Uruguay part ways with Oscar Tabarez, before successor Diego Alonso eventually righted the ship.
With two prolific strikers in Suarez and Cavani, La Celeste had yielded some fine achievements in the last decade. As Cavani and Suarez are entering the twilight of their careers, Alonso still has Darwin Nunez at his disposal.
Despite a shaky introduction to the Premier League, the 23-year-old Liverpool player enhanced his confidence by bagging a brace in his last game against Southampton before the World Cup break.
As for 24-year-old Federico Valverde, the starlet is flying high at Real Madrid and becoming instrumental under Carlo Ancelotti. The World Cup is a golden opportunity for the midfielder to cement his big-game status.
The presence of Portugal and Uruguay may cast a shadow on South Korea’s future and head coach Paulo Bento and star player Son Heung-min now have to prove that they can survive a tough test.
Questions were looming over South Korea when Son underwent a surgery following a facial injury, until the Spurs forward posted an morale-boosting message expressing his fitness for Qatar.
Known for their mental strength, South Korea have occasionally played the role of giant killers, notably the 2-0 upset over defending champions Germany 2-0 in the 2018 World Cup.
For South Korea, the second group fixture against Ghana is a must-win game, while the African side have the same thoughts.
After failing to qualify for the 2018 tournament, the Black Stars are celebrating their return to the World Cup stage and aim to upset the odds.
The squad features experienced and talented players capable of rising to the task. It will be up to coach Otto Addo to find the right blend and give the team the self-belief they need to shake things up in Qatar.
It is worth highlighting the clash between Ghana and Uruguay, as Ghana were eliminated in highly dramatic fashion by Uruguay in the quarterfinals at South Africa in 2010, when Suarez purposely blocked a goalbound strike with his hand, preventing Ghana from making history and becoming the first African team to reach the World Cup semifinals.