For Portugal and their coach Carlos Queiroz, 180 minutes of football played on 14 and 18 November stand between them and a ticket to the 2010 FIFA World Cup South Africa™. And though A Selecção das Quinas's star names make them slight favourites to progress against European Zone play-off opponents Bosnia-Herzegovina, the underdogs displayed greater consistency throughout qualifying.
In an exclusive interview, FIFA.com spoke to the former Real Madrid coach about Portugal's shaky start to qualifying, Cristiano Ronaldo's fitness and their chances of reaching South Africa 2010.
FIFA.com: Carlos, what's your verdict on the European Zone play-off draw that was recently held in Zurich?
Carlos Queiroz: It's something really special for football fans. It'll be very interesting, with four top-quality matches, and I'm sure we're going to see a very good standard of play. I must say that for Portugal and I, it means a lot to be here. It's a sort of preparation before going to South Africa, so we'll be approaching it in the right way.
How do you rate Bosnia-Herzegovina?
They're a fantastic team, with great players who have acquired international experience. It's going to be very tough to play against them away from home because the atmosphere in their stadium will be spectacular. I've been there before and I think their fans are one of the reasons why they've got so far. We need to take great care and be prepared to play good football, because if we don't we'll be in for a big surprise. Though if we can continue the form we've shown in recent months we've got a great chance.
Does being involved in a play-off put extra pressure on you and your team?
There's always pressure in football. I thrive on pressure, it's part of our lives. We play to win, ever since we decided to focus only on that. We've always been able to perform to our best and put on our best displays under pressure, so I don't see why this time should be different.
The second leg will be played in Bosnia-Herzegovina. Would you have preferred the return to be in Portugal?
It doesn't matter to me, that's just the way the draw went. We have to focus on how to beat Bosnia. We'll play the first leg at home, so let's see how well the Bosnians can perform in Portugal. That'll help us prepare better for the second leg.
Cristiano Ronaldo is currently out injured, do you have a Plan B in case he's not fit to play a part?
Cristiano will be there, no doubt about it.
Is there any Bosnian player who has particularly caught your eye?
Definitely Edin Dzeko. It's no coincidence that he's been named among the 30 candidates to win France Football's Ballon d'Or. He's a highly impressive player who's been doing really well recently, but obviously he's not the only one. Now's the moment to start studying Bosnia in great depth in order to be able to play better against them and cancel out their qualities.
Portugal had a shaky start to South Africa 2010 qualifying, and were in danger of missing out altogether. Do you feel that the team has hit its best form in time for the play-offs?
We made a few errors early on in qualifying. But since those admittedly dark times, the team has got back on track and played good football. More than that, I'd say brilliant football. Our team was fantastic in the games against Denmark, Sweden and Hungary. It was then we showed that we're hitting top form at the moment.
What changes did you make to the team to turn things around?
To be honest, we had a lot of injury problems, while other players were without a club and in uncertain situations. Besides which, several players retired from international duty and we had to rebuild the team and bring in new faces. And that's really tough to do in the middle of a qualifying phase. But we did it, we're here and that's what matters.
Should Portugal successfully negotiate the play-offs, can they be considered among the favourites to go all the way at South Africa 2010?
I think the hardest part for us has been qualifying. If we qualify, Portugal will definitely be firm contenders to win South Africa 2010, or at least finish on the podium.
You seem very sure...
I'm 100 per cent convinced we'll be there. I've got no doubts whatsoever.