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Portugal won't have it easy

Sunday, 22 June 2014 - 6:55am IST | Agency: dna

Still smarting from their crushing loss to Germany, Portugal are in a must-win situation as they take on the United States in Manaus on Sunday.

I'm reminded of that game these sides played at the 2002 World Cup. That's one game the Portuguese would love to forget. After all, they lost 2-3. That squad was called Portugal's 'golden generation' with players like Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Fernando Couto to name a few. They went to Japan and South Korea with heavy expectations, but suffered a rude shock. It proved to be a costly defeat as Portugal crashed out of the tournament in the group stage itself.

Fast-forward to 2014 and, this time, Portugal, led by the dazzling Cristiano Ronaldo, are the favorites. However, living up to that tag is easier said than done. Jurgen Klinsmann, my former teammate, has moulded the Americans into a compact, well-organised team. They are in good form, especially after that morale-boosting 2-1 win over Ghana. And it remains to be seen how Portugal respond to the drubbing handed to them by the Germans. Manager Paulo Bento has to deal with the injuries to full-back Fabio Coentrao and striker Hugo Almeida, not to mention the suspended Pepe. It doesn't end there, though, with rumours surrounding Ronaldo's fitness.

Whoever fills in for Pepe has to assume the role of commander of the defence. Portugal will find it hard to break through the middle as they are likely to encounter the defensive-minded Americans who will try not to leave any free space. The key for Portugal will be to exploit the flanks with Nani and hopefully, a fit-enough Ronaldo.

The Belgium-Russia game will also be an intriguing contest. Both are tipped to qualify from this group. However, I would still pick the Belgians to top this group. They have immense individual quality within their ranks which, I feel, has justifiably earned them the tag of the tournament's 'dark horses'. It speaks volumes of the wealth of talent at coach Marc Wilmots's disposal. Players like Marouane Fellaini and Dries Mertens start on the bench. And if the Algeria match is anything to go by, Wilmots also seems to have the Midas touch when it comes to making those crucial changes.

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