'I'm saving myself for the World Cup'
LISBON, Portugal (AP):
Portugal need Cristiano Ronaldo to start reproducing his club form for the national team at the World Cup in South Africa.
The world's most expensive player failed to shine during qualifying and Portugal struggled, finishing second in their group and reaching the final tournament only by edging Bosnia-Herzegovina in the play-offs.
Crucially, Ronaldo didn't score a single goal for his country in the campaign, which featured a run of three 0-0 draws, two of them at home.
"It's not a problem," the Real Madrid player said of his international goal drought. "I'm saving myself for the World Cup."
The Portuguese hit form late under coach Carlos Queiroz, who took charge after the 2008 European Championship. One of the coach's unanticipated trump cards in the final qualifying stages was Liedson, a Brazilian-born striker who took Portuguese nationality at the end of last year. The Sporting Lisbon forward, twice the Portuguese league's top scorer, scored two key goals and eased the pressure on the team.
Liedson is now one of three regular Brazilian-born players on the team, including Chelsea playmaker Deco and Pepe, a standout Real Madrid defender who is in doubt for the World Cup after undergoing knee surgery in December.
While Manchester United player Nani and Simao Sabrosa of Atletico Madrid can fill the midfield gap left by Ronaldo when he is unavailable, Portugal are still looking for someone reliable to play at left back.
The defence has otherwise been one of Portugal's strong points, with Chelsea player Ricardo Carvalho and Bruno Alves of FC Porto keeping a firm hold on the central positions.
Portugal have also solved their goalkeeping problem as Braga keeper Eduardo posted five straight clean sheets and conceded only two goals in eight matches during qualifying.
Portugal haven't missed a major international tournament for more than a decade - their best run ever - but they still haven't won any silverware.
In South Africa, the Portuguese will be up against Brazil, Ivory Coast and North Korea in Group G.
"Brazil are the strongest team in the group," Ronaldo said. "Ivory Coast are tough adversaries and North Korea run a lot. It's not going to be a walkover."
In their last meeting, Brazil beat Portugal 6-2 in a 2008 friendly that was Queiroz's first game at the helm. Overall, Brazil have won 12 of their 18 encounters.
But the Portuguese can take heart from the 1966 World Cup in England when they beat Brazil, the defending champions. That game, the only previous World Cup match between the two countries, ended 3-1.
The 1966 tournament also provides some cheer for Portuguese aspirations against the North Koreans. Portugal trailed 3-0 against the Asian team before rallying to win 4-3 in one of the great World Cup comebacks.
The Portuguese have never come up against Ivory Coast. Queiroz travelled to the African Cup of Nations in January to assess his upcoming opponent.
"They have quality players, with European experience and maturity, for every position," Queiroz said. "Each one of them on their own is capable of winning a game."