Portugal staged a timely revival in their 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™ qualifying group to retain hope of reaching a third consecutive global finals. To achieve that goal they must now overcome Bosnia-Herzegovina in a two-legged play-off, which kicks off on Saturday 14 November.
"If we can maintain the level we have shown in the last few months we will have a very good chance," coach Carlos Queiroz told FIFA.com after the draw was made. That late recovery has been reflected on the FIFA/Coca-Cola World Ranking for October, with the Portuguese clambering up seven places to tenth overall.
Rooted in 17th between July and September 2009, they found themselves in their lowest position since 2004, the result of a string of disappointing results in Group 1 of European Zone qualifying for South Africa 2010. A home defeat by Denmark and three consecutive draws at the mid-point of their campaign had left Queiroz's men floundering near the bottom of the pool and on the verge of elimination.
As far as we are concerned, the World Cup starts now. We are going to try and put ourselves in a strong position for the return leg.
Though they were still some way above their worst-ever position of 43rd in August 1998, much more was expected of a team that had finished fourth at Germany 2006 and had reached the last eight at UEFA EURO 2008. A draw in Denmark in September jeopardised Portuguese chances even further. Yet no sooner had they neared the precipice than they engineered a stunning revival, finally finding their form with three consecutive wins and capitalising on some faltering performances by Sweden to seize the play-off spot just in time.
Queiroz targets cushion
Portugal's worries are not over just yet, however. Blocking their path to FIFA World Cup are free-scoring Bosnia-Herzegovina, who they may have to overcome without injured star man Cristiano Ronaldo. Though the Real Madrid man has failed to hit the heights consistently for his country, scoring only twice on international duty in the last two years and not at all during the qualification campaign, there is little question his absence would undermine Portugal's status as favourites to qualify.
"People are expecting us to win," said Queiroz recently in reference to the first leg against the Bosnians. "We are serious candidates to reach the finals and we're going to try and put ourselves in a strong position for the return leg."
That expectation is founded on a talented line-up that also features proven performers such as Deco, Pepe, Nani, Ricardo Carvalho, Tiago, Bruno Alves, Liedson and Simao. That roll call makes Portugal's failure to gel in the group phase all the more perplexing and gives the Bosnian underdogs some cause for optimism, as their coach Miroslav Blazevic points out: "Portugal have a tremendous amount of talent. The favourites don't always come out on top, though, and I think we also have what it takes to win."
The Portuguese boasted one of the tightest defences in the qualifiers, conceding only five goals in all, though they can expect a stern examination from their play-off opponents, who were the fourth-highest scorers on the continent with 25 goals. Queiroz's biggest concern, however, is his misfiring front-line, which managed to convert only a small percentage of the many chances his side created in their Group 1 encounters.
Aware of the need to harness their late momentum, Queiroz has been stressing the importance of making a fast start against the dangerous Balkan outfit. "As far as we are concerned, the World Cup starts now," he said, and his priority now will be to ensure that their tournament does not come to a premature end.