WITH A GREAT SIGH OF RELIEF, PORTUGAL MANAGER CARLOS QUEIROZ WALKED OFF THE PITCH AFTER A 1-0 PLAYOFF WIN OVER BOSNIA-HERZEGOVINA ON NOV. 18 AND DESCRIBED HIS team's rocky qualification run (which had kicked off with one victory in five games and ended with six wins in seven) as "a long journey...with some hiccups on the way." That's a mild characterization considering these facts: Cristiano Ronaldo, the 2008 FIFA World Player of the Year, missed six qualifying matches due to an ankle injury. When he did play, he was a shell of himself: zero goals and zero assists in five caps. Had it not been for 90th-minute scores to tie a strong Danish team and beat lowly Albania, Portugal would not have qualified.
Whether Ronaldo's struggles were a hiccup or something more serious, it's on Queiroz to provide the remedy—and so far he hasn't. The former South Africa coach has struggled to manage his best players since taking the helm in 2008. (He still hasn't figured out where to play his biggest star.) His detractors label him reactive and say his substitutions are desperate. Queiroz's ability to mine his team's talent, which reaches far beyond Ronaldo, should determine Portugal's fate—and his own.
Wingers Simão Sabrosa (four goals in qualifying) and Ronaldo bring to mind the Golden Generation duo of Luis Figo and Rui Costa, but in Queiroz's 4-3-3 it'll take a solid center-forward for this line to truly click. Right now that's Liédson da Silva Muniz.
The much decorated Deco (71 caps) will bring stability to the midfield one last time; now 32, he'll retire from international play after South Africa. With Duda and the attacking midfielder Nani, who scored three goals in qualification, this is a solid veteran unit.
A strong mixture of youth and experience—including Pepe (27), Bruno Alves (28) and Ricardo Carvalho (32)—in front of relatively untested keeper Eduardo Carvalho contributed to Portugal's late qualifying surge. The defense blanked its last five opponents, but it will sorely miss José Bosingwa, who went out with a knee injury in March, and Pepe if he's not fully recovered from December knee surgery.
Assuming a loss to Brazil and a win over North Korea, Portugal's opening match against Ivory Coast is crucial. Portugal's cohesion, coupled with Ivory Coast's disarray, may carry the day for the Europeans.