If qualifying for the 2014 World Cup would have ended on Friday, after Portugal's disappointing draw with Israel, the Seleccao wouldn't have made the cut. Cristiano Ronaldo must step up the rest of the way to ensure they at least get into the playoff round.
The Real Madrid superstar won't be available for Tuesday's clash with Azerbaijan due to suspension. It's a side the Seleccao should be able to handle without him. His presence will be crucial during the next stretch of matches, though.
Later in the year, Portugal faces Russia, Northern Ireland and Israel in succession before finishing the group stage with a match against Luxembourg. That three-match stretch will determine whether or not its World Cup dreams remain alive.
As it stands now, the Seleccao are four points behind Russia, which also holds a match in hand, for the only guaranteed spot in the World Cup. They are tied with Israel for the playoff round berth, but are placed in third due to trailing the tiebreaker.
In more simple terms, Portugal is in serious danger of missing out on the World Cup. Its current standing is not a mirage. It has five matches to turn things around and avoid sitting out the marquee international event next year.
Assuming Portugal is able to secure all three points against Azerbaijan without Ronaldo, a task the squad should be able to accomplish, the pressure will fall on his shoulders when he returns.
Although the country certainly doesn't lack depth or talent, Ronaldo is the key piece. He's the engine that makes the team run. When he's not playing well––he failed to make a major impact in the Israel draw––the side isn't anywhere near as dangerous.
That said, Portugal is a very tough squad to play when he's in top form, creating constant scoring chances for himself and his teammates. He's one of the top players in the world, but there's always been a streaky element to his play.
A perfect example is a recent run with Real Madrid. Ronaldo led the Blancos to two straight victories over rival Barcelona and then eliminated Manchester United, his former club, from the Champions League.
That's what Ronaldo-led teams are capable of when he's at his best. It's also the type of run Portugal will need from him upon his return to the lineup later in the year. There's enough talent on the squad to run the table and take the top spot. But the overall margin for error is minimal.
The run starts, and potentially ends, much earlier than expected based on the play of Ronaldo.
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