Portugal's record over the years suffers in comparison with the achievements of Europe's superpowers. Their tally of four appearances at the FIFA World Cup™ and five at the UEFA European Championship seems paltry when compared to that of seasoned qualifiers like Germany, Italy and England.
Yet over the last decade, the Portuguese have become virtual ever-presents at major finals and have impressed on the big stage on more than one occasion, finishing runners-up at UEFA EURO 2004, fourth at Germany 2006 and reaching the last eight at Austria and Switzerland 2008.
Given that impressive run, Portugal were widely tipped to qualify for South Africa 2010 at a canter. But despite boasting the reigning FIFA World Player Cristiano Ronaldo, Carlos Queiroz's undoubtedly talented outfit are in serious danger of missing out on the finals for the first time since France 1998.
Their most obvious shortcomings have been up front, where star performer Ronaldo has failed to repeat the club form that has taken him to the pinnacle of the world game. The Real Madrid man has hit just two goals on international duty in the last 23 months and, alarmingly, has yet to score in eight games in the current qualification campaign.
What makes his goal drought all the more perplexing is the fact that over more or less the same period, the flying forward struck 18 English Premier League goals for Manchester United, the second-biggest haul in the country.
Ronaldo's finishing woes are not the only cause of Portugal's troubles in front of goal. "Our finishing has been very poor," lamented midfielder Duda after the recent qualifiers against Denmark and Hungary. "We've been missing a lot of chances."
That game against the Danes provided a perfect illustration of their problems, with Ronaldo and Co hitting the back of the net just once from 35 goal attempts. "We have been the better side in a lot of our games but unfortunately we are just not putting our chances away," commented Pepe after heading Portugal to a welcome 1-0 defeat of Hungary just days later.
Among the side's scorers, only Nani and Hugo Almeida have two goals to their name. Simao Sabrosa, Deco, Bruno Alves, Liedson (on his debut for A Seleçao das Quinas) and Pepe have all appeared on the scoresheet once, with their other goal coming when Malta defender Brian Said put through his own net in a 4-0 win in Ta'Qali. Since then the Portuguese have laboured to no fewer than three goalless draws.
Adding to the mystery is the fact that coach Queiroz has a glittering cast of players to call on aside from Ronaldo. Nani continues to develop under the tutelage of Sir Alex Ferguson, while right winger Simao has made a valuable contribution at Atletico Madrid, forming part of a highly productive attacking line with Diego Forlan and Sergio Aguero.
Pepe has produced some commanding performances at the back for Real Madrid, and fellow centre-back Bruno Alves is yet another cultured performer to graduate from the Porto academy. Seasoned midfielder Deco, a UEFA Champions League winner with Porto and Barcelona, is back in favour at Chelsea, while the Brazi-born Liedson has proven his lethal goalscoring skills in the colours of Sporting.
Too little, too late?
Yet despite the riches at their disposal, Portugal have struggled to gel as a unit during their faltering Group 1 campaign. Inhibited by a lack of fluency in possession and a tendency to lose shape, their failings in front of goal are the most obvious symptom of their shaky recent form.
Uncertainty has been heightened by Queiroz's decision to switch goalkeepers midway through the group. After being entrusted with the No1 jersey for the first four games, keeping three clean sheets in the process, Benfica's Quim was surprisingly dropped for Sporting Braga's Eduardo.
"Quite apart from anything else, I'm happy because we've got a balanced side now," said Queiroz after returning from Budapest. "We have a settled squad and I'm very happy with how the players have responded to the difficulties we're facing."
That balance may have come too late to save Queiroz's side from a surprise elimination, however. With only high-pressure home games against Hungary and Malta to come, Portugal need maximum points and a Swedish slip-up just to make the play-offs. It is a state of affairs few would have predicted when the Lusitanians embarked on what was meant to be a straightforward journey to South Africa.