Portugal have a proud recent history, as evidenced by their progress to the final of UEFA EURO 2004, the semi-finals at the 2006 FIFA World Cup™ and the quarter-finals at EURO 2008. The Portuguese have a battery of stars at their disposal, including Ricardo Carvalho, Pepe, Nani, and Hugo Almeida, not to mention FIFA World Player of the Year Cristiano Ronaldo. Backing Portugal to reach the 2010 FIFA World Cup finals would have looked a pretty safe bet at the start of qualifying.
However, six games into the ten-match qualifying campaign, coach Carlos Queiroz and his men are in grave danger of missing out next year. The Portuguese are third in their section on nine points, trailing in the wake of leaders Denmark (16 points) and Hungary (13). What's more, Portugal still face arguably their most daunting fixtures, the away trips to Copenhagen and Budapest. Those days of reckoning come up on Saturday and Wednesday next week and it is very much do-or-die time, as defeat in even one of those games could spell an end to the Iberians' FIFA World Cup dream.
Ronaldo aside, Portuguese hopes seemed to be resting on striker Almeida, scorer of three of his country's last five goals, one in a 2-1 qualifying victory over Albania and two in a 3-0 win over Liechtenstein.
Then, at the worst possible moment, the Werder Bremen hitman was sidelined with a foot injury. Despite the disappointment of being unable to rally to his country's cause at their time of need, the 25-year-old met with FIFA.com for an extensive interview.
FIFA.com: Werder Bremen made a poor start to their Bundesliga campaign with just a point from their first two matches, but two wins in two since then and third place in the early standings have silenced the critics. What's your take on the situation?
Hugo Almeida: Obviously it wasn't the best start, but we have a very strong team, and we're definitely equipped to hit our targets.
What can Werder achieve without the inspirational Diego, who switched to Juventus this summer?
We can achieve a lot! Diego is a terrific player and a good friend, and we'll obviously miss him. But that's football: players leave, and new players arrive. I'm sure we'll play good football, even without Diego.
You've been at the Weser Stadium for three years now. How do you see your career developing, and where? Will you stay in Bremen, or is there a dream club you'd like to represent one day?
You can't predict the future. All I know is that I'm happily settled in Bremen for now.
We're ushering in a new generation at the moment, and the process isn't complete, but I'm certain we'll pull it off.
You've played in the Portuguese and the German top flights, generally regarded as two very different leagues. Has the Bundesliga helped you come on as a player?
I've definitely learned a lot and picked up a huge amount of experience. I've developed as a player here in the Bundesliga.
Turning to your national team, Portugal are only third in FIFA World Cup qualifying Group 1 behind Denmark and Hungary, the teams you face in your next two matches. Do Portugal still stand a chance of qualifying for South Africa 2010, or are we about to see a FIFA World Cup finals without the nation that finished fourth in 2006?
We still have every chance of qualifying. We know it's going to be tough, but we'll do whatever it takes. None of us wants his only experience of the World Cup to be watching it on TV.
Why are Portugal struggling at the moment?
We've dropped vital points, largely because we have a lot of new and young players in the team. We're ushering in a new generation at the moment, and the process isn't complete, but I'm certain we'll pull it off.
What has changed since Carlos Queiroz took the helm last year?
Not a lot really. The new coach has different methods, but the goals are the same.
You play alongside Cristiano Ronaldo for the national team. Is he really the best player in the world?
He most certainly is. His ability is truly exceptional.
Next year would be your first trip to the FIFA World Cup. What would going to South Africa mean to you personally?
Every player dreams of taking part at the World Cup, and I'm no different. It would be one of the biggest moments in my career.
Germany beat Portugal at both the 2006 FIFA World Cup and UEFA EURO 2008. You play alongside German internationals Per Mertesacker and Tim Wiese at Werder, so what's it like when you go back to your club after something like that?
I can't answer that yet, but it would certainly be very special to face team-mates from your club at the World Cup. We'd have to set aside our friendships for 90 minutes.