Cristiano Ronaldo is headed to the World Cup with Portugal, and some of his teammates are already expecting another title.
Ronaldo, as usual, was the country’s key player as it won nine straight qualifiers to reach the tournament in Russia. And that came after the Real Madrid forward led the way to winning last year’s European Championship, Portugal’s first major trophy.
“Portugal always plays to win, and just like we did at Euro 2016, we are going to try to win the World Cup as well,” Portugal midfielder Bernardo Silva said after the 2-0 win over Switzerland at the Stadium of Light.
Here’s a look at some of the reasons why Portugal will be among the favorites at next year’s World Cup:
Portugal again relied on the talent of Ronaldo, who thrived from the start of qualifying and finished with 15 goals in nine matches.
He was one goal short of the qualifying record set by Poland striker Robert Lewandowski this year.
Ronaldo scored in every qualifier he played but two — the win over the Swiss on Tuesday and the 1-0 win at Hungary in September, when he earned an assist with a perfect cross for Andre Silva’s winning header.
He didn’t start in the 2-0 win at Andorra last week because he wasn’t fully fit, but he came off the bench in the second half and scored the team’s first goal and set up Andre Silva’s second.
Ronaldo didn’t play in the team’s opening loss at Switzerland because he was still recovering from a knee injury sustained in the Euro 2016 final.
Portugal cruised after the opening setback at Switzerland, outscoring opponents 32-4 and finishing with the fourth-best qualifying campaign among all teams, behind Germany, Belgium and Spain.
Only those three teams scored more goals than Portugal, and Spain and England were the only two nations which conceded fewer, three each.
“Portugal showed that it has a quality squad that can face any team out there,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said.
Among the team’s victories were consecutive 6-0 routs of Andorra and the Faeroe Islands. It also defeated third-place Hungary 3-0 at home and 1-0 in Budapest.
“Even after the loss to Switzerland, we never doubted that we were going to finish first in the group,” Portugal midfielder Joao Mario said. “We just had to do our job.”
Santos said he feels he has a unique group of players in his hands.
“I have a special relationship with the players,” he said. “I have a lot of faith in my players and they know that. It’s not easy to have 25 players with this mentality, generating such a fantastic atmosphere.”
Bernardo Silva said they feed off the coach’s confidence, and Mario said that all the players are behind him no matter what.
Portugal is expected to begin its World Cup preparations with a friendly at neighboring Spain in November. The match is expected to be officially confirmed in the coming days.
“We are looking forward to having a good run in the World Cup,” Portugal midfielder William Carvalho said. “But right now it’s time to enjoy what we just did.” Tales Azzoni, AP