WORLD CUP: Portugal tries to repeat its European success
After finally breaking through with its first major title at the European Championship two years ago, Portugal will use the same formula at the World Cup.
The European champions will travel to Russia with many of the players from the squad that won Euro 2016, including Cristiano Ronaldo, and it will also carry the same low-key mentality it had when it succeeded in France.
"We are fully aware that we are not the favorites," Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. "History shows it, as do all the titles of the other teams that will be playing at the World Cup. Before the European Championship I also didn't believe we were the favorites."
Santos said Portugal can be considered a "candidate" for the title but it still shouldn't be included among the top contenders despite being European champions.
"We have the same three or four teams that were favorites in the European Championship — Germany, Spain, France — and now we add Brazil and Argentina. These teams are the favorites, then there is a group of candidates in which we can naturally include Portugal," he told Portuguese television channel RTP.
Portugal won its first major title in 2016 — after coming close a few other times in the Ronaldo era — by avoiding all those traditional favorites until the final against host France, when it won in extra time. It played Hungary, Iceland and Austria in the group stage, then faced Croatia, Poland and Wales in the knockout matches.
Santos said this time he can make the same type of promise he made to the Portuguese people before the European Championship.
"We will give our best and we will be a contender to win every match," he said. "I have the same confidence in my players and in my team that I had before the European Championship. We will have the same goal now that we had then."
Nine of the players who started in the final against France are back with the World Cup team, with the only absences being veteran forward Nani and young midfielder Renato Sanches.
In total, 13 players from the Euro 2016 squad will be in Russia. Among those not going to Russia are Ricardo Carvalho, Andre Gomes and Eder, who scored the title-winning goal in the extra time against the hosts.
"It hurts not to be able to include all the players who were with us in the European Championship," said Santos, who opted to add a few younger players to the World Cup squad. "All of them helped us write a brilliant page in the history of Portuguese football."
Portugal began its World Cup preparations with a 2-2 draw against Tunisia on Monday, when it was without Ronaldo because he played with Real Madrid in the Champions League final on Saturday. All three Sporting Lisbon players in the squad also were not available because they played in the Portuguese Cup final.
"We are just beginning our World Cup preparations," Portugal midfielder Joao Mario said after the home draw against Tunisia. "We will keep working to fix our mistakes and arrive at the World Cup in the best possible form."
Portugal will play two more warm-up matches before the World Cup — against Belgium on Saturday and Algeria on June 7.
The team was drawn into Group B at the World Cup, along with Morocco, Iran and Iberian rival Spain. Portugal's opener will be against the Spaniards on June 15 in Sochi in one of the most anticipated matches of the tournament.
"It will be the game between the favorite and the candidate," Santos said. "We will need to be very careful in this group, but if Portugal doesn't advance it will be disappointing."
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