Santos and Charruas progress at World Cup 2022

Santos choice Rafael Leao
Santos choice Rafael Leao

Today, with Group H, we complete our FIFA World Cup 2022 group-by-group analysis. The group teams are—Portugal, Uruguay, Ghana, and South Korea.

Introduction

This is another classic World Cup group with teams from EUFA, CONMEBOL, CAF, and AFC. But all of the teams are inhabiting different air, let alone levels of form. The African team is the weakest link in the group even after convincing several dual-nationals to join the squad, and they have not been playing well of late. The Asian team is reeling from Son Heung-Min’s facial injury and hoping for his speedy recovery and his use of a protective mask. The South Americans are transitioning from a Golden Generation to one that has the potential to rival their seniors, while the Portuguese will have the strongest team they have ever had going to Qatar and two invaluable, recent lessons in their recent memory.

The first lesson—directed at the players—was the letdown of allowing Serbia to score the Qatar-clinching, match-winning goal in the 90th minute while playing at home. That loss put the Portuguese into a two-match, must-win-both playoff against Turkey and North Macedonia. The lesson: the game’s intensity has to suffuse the team until the final whistle blows. The second lesson, losing 0-1 to Spain, again at home, was directed to Santos. His inability to understand the trap Luis Enrique lay for the Portuguese eliminated them from the semifinals of the 2022-23 Nations League A.

If nevertheless, one thinks of Portugal as a contender, and few pundits put them among the top five or six teams, then one can see this group as providing just what Fernando Santos’ team needs. Opening with Ghana gives The Navigators a chance to ease into the cup and fine-tune their remarkable line-up—or at the very least teach Santos what line-ups work or don’t work—making sure he knows what the team is all about.

Let us assume the opening match settles the Portuguese starting line-up going forward. Then, facing Uruguay next allows the Portuguese to see how well they can do against top opposition, one which will have both a strong defense for Cristiano Ronaldo’s peers to crack and a young and powerful offense for Ruben Dias and company to contend with. The Uruguayans are also notorious for fighting their opponents from the moment they leave their locker room until their team bus leaves the premises. So, that first lesson will either have found a permanent home in the psyche of the Portuguese or the Uruguayans will sear it in.

Finishing with a competitive South Korea after either securing six or four points means the Portuguese will either go out to get a win they need to secure the top spot in their group or relax with a series of roster subs because their slot is already secure. Knowing that in either case while Son’s pals are no match for the UEFA team, they will put up a good fight, particularly in the physical aspects of the game, which will make this a good sparring match. This situation will give Santos a chance to still fidget with his line-up and if a draw is all he needs then any mistakes will be masked and remain a potential surprise bomb down the line. On the other hand, if he needs the win and puts out the team that can get it, and they get the win, then hopefully he will understand that from there on in those are the players that need to be on the pitch representing Portugal.

Portugal has several opportunities to make history in this World Cup while righting some cup misfortunes. As Ronaldo’s and Santos’ last World Cups, this one has the potential of sending them off in a blaze of glory. But much has to be done right and unfortunately, it will require Ronnie to accept a reduced role and Santos to play a more offensive-minded side than he is normally comfortable with. Perhaps it is this precarious duality that has convinced most pundits that The Navigators are not to be taken seriously. But assuming those two monumental obstacles can be overcome, then righting slip-ups will come naturally along the way to the deep end of the tournament pool.

In 2014 Portugal got eliminated in the Group Stage by losing 0-4 to Germany, drawing 2-2 with the USA, and only beating Ghana 2-1 as their undeserved consolation. Meeting either the Yanks or Die Mannschaft would require the teams to be well into the tourney but beating either or both will exorcise those past demons. In 2018 Uruguay eliminated Portugal 1-2 with two Cavani goals. Their group meeting in Qatar will be an opportunity for revenge.

Then comes the critical issue for this team. Ronaldo is no longer “the Cristiano Ronaldo” of old and his teammates will have to carry him in this cup. Ironically, he has carried them until they have become a true super team. Using Diogo Costa or Rui Patricio in goal and a four-man defense of Joao Canselo, Diogo Dalot, Ruben Dias, and (assuming he recovers) Nuno Mendes, Portugal has, man-for-man, one of the best defenses in the world. In midfield, a quartet of Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Palhinha, and William Carvalho (with Vitinha and Ruben Neves as options) provides speed, creativity, and a tall dose of added defense.

Up front, with Diogo Jota’s injury ruling him out of the cup, Joao Felix should finally get his chance and, if recovered, so should Rafael Leao (with Cristiano Ronaldo as a regular sub when needed and Ricardo Horta taking his bow if the other two younger strikers do not produce). The 4-4-2 can modify into a 4-3-3 with Ronaldo or Horta coming in for whichever offensive midfielder is not clicking at the time. In whichever version, this is a team that can take on all comers at this World Cup.

Uruguay are a very good side and have a bright future as one generation passes the baton to the next. Imagine Sergio Rochet in goal (with Fernando Muslera at the ready should Rochet choke), and a four-man defense of Mathias Olivera, Jose Maria Jimenez, Ronald Araujo, and Damian Suarez as your defensive foundation. Then, in midfield, you place Fede Valverde, Rodrigo Bentancur, and Matia Vecino. Follow that up with a striker force of Darwin Nunez, Diego Rossi, and either Luis Suarez or Edinson Cavani. What is not to like in this line-up? It is unfortunate that the two teams from this group will face the ones coming out of Brazil’s group.

South Korea are still dependent upon Son so his facial/eye injury is a real concern for the squad. Assuming he can play with a mask and does not feel it is a major hindrance, South Korea are a stronger side in that they finally have a couple of capable supporters to play alongside Son. In Mallorca midfielder Lee Kang-in and Napoli defender Kim Min-Jae, assuming they get the call-up, the team has an experienced and technically proficient skeleton upon which to hang their hopes.

Ghana were fortunate to make it out of Africa and to Qatar, but now their luck has run out as they are thoroughly outclassed by their other group mates. As opposed to Cameroon, who have some very in-form players right now, the Black Stars are not clicking either. So, it is difficult to see how they will mount much resistance and easy to see how they might become the group’s punching bag.

Likely Prospects

Portugal can only mess up qualification on its own for their group mates are not all strong enough to bump them off. If they play to their potential, they will qualify as the first team, and if not as the second team.

Uruguay are too talented, experienced, and cohesive not to progress in one of the two top spots and how Portugal performs will dictate which position that will be.

South Korea have been dealt a cruel last-minute blow and if Son does not heal in time, they will be easy prey and go home early. If they are whole in time, then they are the team that could eke out progression if one of the two favorites implodes.

Ghana is hoping to get revenge on Uruguay for their 2010 World Cup debacle, but they simply do not have the weapons to do anything but attempt to put up a fight. They will be the group’s punching bag.

English language soccer media perspectives     

Here is Reuters on Portugal:

“One of Portugal’s best generations of players, led by Cristiano Ronaldo in the twilight of his career, will arrive at the World Cup with the pressure of proving they are not underachievers. They lost in the last 16 at Euro 2020, failed to qualify for the finals at the last two Nations League editions, and had to go through the playoffs to reach this year’s World Cup. Their latest defeat at home to Spain in their final match of the Nations League group stage sparked criticism…Fans and local media are questioning if the time has come for the veteran coach to step down and for Ronaldo to pass the baton to the new generation and assume a secondary role in a team full of young and talented players.”

And here is Reuters again on Uruguay:

“’La Celeste’ may still rely heavily on aging stalwarts Luis Suarez, Edinson Cavani, and Diego Godin but they have emerging talents in Darwin Nunez, Federico Valverde, and Rodrigo Bentancur. ‘They are players who are at a great world level. They make a difference physically and technically,’ Suarez told Marca. ‘Our squad, a mixture of experience and youth, has a lot of qualities, and that has a big influence on a World Cup.’ [Coach Diego] Alonso, however, is still looking for the right balance between the veterans and youngsters and has not yet found a system to bring the best out of his talented squad. If Alonso can solve the selection dilemmas that flummoxed his predecessor, Uruguay could be well-placed to advance to the knockouts with another deep run a possibility in Qatar.”

Here is the BBC on Ghana:

“The Black Stars have struggled for form this year, winning just two of their 12 games, with Addo taking charge following a group stage exit from the Africa Cup of Nations in January. The 47-year-old, who is in his first senior managerial role, handed debuts to four players, including Athletic Bilbao forward Inaki Williams, during September’s international break. Southampton center-back Mohammed Salisu, Brighton wing-back Tariq Lamptey, and Hamburg winger Ransford-Yeboah Konigsdorffer also joined Williams in winning their first caps. The West Africans are the lowest-ranked side (61st) at the World Cup. Last month the Ghana Football Association helped organize two national days of prayer and fasting to offer support for the Black Stars.”

And here is the BBC on South Korea:

“Tottenham boss Antonio Conte is confident South Korea forward Son Heung-min will be fit to feature in the World Cup later this month. The Spurs attacker suffered a fracture around his left eye during their 2-1 win at Marseille on Tuesday. The 30-year-old had surgery [and missed] Tottenham’s 2-1 defeat by Liverpool and is now at home. Son jointly won the Premier League golden boot last season but has struggled for form this campaign and scored five goals in 19 games in all competitions for Tottenham.”

Contestant’s local media perspectives (in translation)

GhanaWeb ran a story on Tariq Lamptey this summer that argued the newly nationalized squad member would make a huge impact on the Black Stars’ team. A number of teams, Qatar, Ghana, Australia, and Cameroon, to mention a few obvious ones, have actively recruited talent outside their borders to bolster their ranks. “Following Ghana’s qualification for the 2022 FIFA World Cup,” the GhanaWeb story reported “five players switched nationalities to play for the Black Stars…Inaki Williams, Lamptey, Patric Pfeiffer, Stephan Ambrosius, Mohammed Salisu, and Ransford Yeboah. All of the players were registered and available during the September international break.”

Uruguay’s national team star Fede Valverde was the object of an interview in Depor. The sports news website focused on the midfielder’s rise to a starting role at Real Madrid. Valverde has attributed his maturing talent and his chances to showcase his wares to his coach’s encouragement. He said “I will always be grateful for all he has given me and for his help. He made me realize that I had to put the effort to become a more important contributor, not only bringing energy and work ethic but scoring goals. Day to day he supports me with the type of assistance that feels unconditional. He has always wanted to put me on the spot to give me a chance to show I can perform and finally, I have shown I am ready to do what he has always wanted of me. He has allowed me to see that progression by pointing out how it has occurred step by step and with a lot of care.”

Portugal’s Record sports magazine online had an interview with national team coach Fernando Santos in which he was asked about the situation with Joao Felix in Atletico Madrid, particularly his lack of playing time. “Fernando Santos analyzed this way: ‘The issue is that often the player prefers to play in a certain position and to play in a certain way and, in many cases, the squads the player finds himself in have many players playing in these same positions. Here there is a different competition. At Benfica, he shone playing as the spearhead or right behind him. In the national team, there is also Bernardo and Bruno he needs to compete with. At the club, it is a matter of adaptation. Félix is ??too young to reverse this.” Santos argued that at his young age Felix was still trying to figure out how to contribute when, from his perspective, he was misplaced on the pitch.

The Korea Herald was focusing on Son Heung-min’s injury and its potential impact on the national team. Using England’s The Telegraph as a source the Herald said: “Son, the Tottenham Hotspur forward, had suffered four fractures to his eye socket after colliding with an opposing defender during a UEFA Champions League match at Marseille on Tuesday. Tottenham announced the following day that Son would require surgery, without revealing the exact nature of his injury or timetable for his return. Son will only find out if he will miss the World Cup after the procedure, which has been rescheduled to an earlier date to give the player extra time to recover. However, with weeks of recovery to follow, Son’s availability for the big tournament is now in doubt. The Telegraph said Son will likely miss Tottenham’s remaining three matches before the World Cup. The paper cited a recent example of another player’s relatively quick recovery from a similar injury. Belgian star Kevin De Bruyne played less than three weeks after suffering fractures to his nose and lefty eye socket in 2021.”

Sundry and/or Intangible 

This group is similar to Group G in that it has multiple tiers, only this one seems to have four—Portugal alone at the top, Uruguay expecting second place, and South Korea hoping one of them slips up so they can capitalize, while in fourth place Ghana would be hard put to produce any positive results.

Each team in this group also has a potential time bomb or two that might derail their entire cup progression. Portugal has the Santos and Ronaldo issues. South Korea has the Son face/eye injury issue. Ghana has yet to do the melding of the newly acquired talent with teammates who qualified without their assistance but now will most likely have to make way for the more talented newcomers. Uruguay has been mostly able to build their team cohesiveness but with a new coach having to determine when the likes of Suarez, Godin, and Cavani ride the bench, who knows how the veteran stars will react to being subbed out for fresh new talent?

All of that said, and assuming that by game time the teams’ rosters are devoid of major absences, or those absences have been substituted for adequately, below is one potential series of scenarios of how Group H might unfold come this winter.

Game-by-game 

Date Match Time (ET) Stadium
Thurs, Nov. 24 Uruguay vs. South Korea 8 a.m. Education City
Thurs, Nov. 24 Portugal vs. Ghana 11 a.m. Stadium 974
Mon, Nov. 28 South Korea vs. Ghana 8 a.m. Education City
Mon, Nov. 28 Portugal vs. Uruguay 2 p.m. Lusail
Fri, Dec. 2 South Korea vs. Portugal 10 a.m. Education City
Fri, Dec. 2 Ghana vs. Uruguay 10 a.m. Al Janoub

 Uruguay—2—v—South Korea—1

The Charruas get their cup off to a good start scoring in each half and keeping the South Koreans at bay most of the match. Son pulls one beauty of a goal in the second half to keep their opponents honest and to give his side something to build their future hope around. Darwin Nunez and Diego Rossi score for Uruguay.

Portugal—3—v—Ghana—0

Santos cannot help himself and starts Ronaldo who produces two goals in response. With a double goal margin going into the locker room, Santos decides not to push his luck and substitutes CR7 in the second half, much to the striker’s chagrin, but the team responds well, and Bernardo Silva closes out the scoring giving The Navigators the settling start they needed.

South Korea—1—v—Ghana—1

Son is feeling the effects of the match against Uruguay and is unable to complete the match leaving halfway through the second half. But he has already produced the opening goal for a teammate with a pretty assist and the teams have to settle for a draw, giving them both mathematical hope but in reality, dooming them both to elimination.

Portugal—2—v—Uruguay—1

Ronaldo starts again but it is Leao’s physicality that leads the way for the Portuguese scoring in the first half and being the constant threat that allows Joao Felix to get his team on the scoreboard a second time. In between those goals, Valverde treats us all to another of his thunderous long-distance goals which ignite Uruguay’s fans and sends their national team on a tear for the final 15 minutes of the match. The Portuguese defense holds firm avenging their 2018 loss by the same score.

South Korea—2—v—Portugal—2

Son is back in better if not ideal form but that is all it takes to inspire his side to their best performance in the cup. He scores one goal halfway through the first half and sets up another early in the second, ensuring his side tally at either side of the half-time whistle. The Portuguese are dumbstruck by the Koreans’ intensity, and it takes a CR7 first-half free kick to even the score before the teams go to the locker rooms. In the second half, after Korea pulls ahead, Santos, thinking he’s found the right formula, does the unthinkable and again substitutes Ronaldo but this time does it with his team needing a goal. CR7 does not show his displeasure at being subbed out this time as the Koreans have run him ragged. And right after he leaves the team seem to get a burst of we-are-now-responsible energy.

In the remainder of the second half, The Navigators begin to jell as a team without Ronnie, and Leao and Felix combine for the former’s second goal of the cup and the draw that secures the team’s first-place finish. Santos is not sure what happened but is sure he made all the right choices—now all he has to do is remember to make the right choices next time—right?

Ghana—0—v—2—Uruguay

In one of the ugliest matches of the cup so far, the Ghanaians go a goal down early and turn the game chippy with yellow cards galore. The Uruguayans dish it right back and by the game’s end, the Africans have gotten their wish to weaken the South Americans as Vecino is suspended for the next match. The Uruguayans, though, get the win, Nunez and Cavani score, and the Charruas progress.

 

Order of progression to the next stage: 1. Portugal 2. Uruguay.

 

Photo: Portugal’s Rafael Leao, Shutterstock ID 2205924219, by Cristiano Barni.

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