Portugal was viewed as a heavy favorite to finish in the top two of UEFA Group F when World Cup qualifying began. The squad's advancement no longer seems like a lock, however, making a road clash with Northern Ireland far more important than expected.
The biggest issue for the Seleccao has been the emergence of Israel. As things stand, Russia is two points behind Portugal, and Israel is three points back, but both those teams have a match in hand. So the pressure is on Portugal to step up over its final three qualifiers.
Northern Ireland is the first test of that finishing stretch. The Norn Iron held Portugal to a draw in their first meeting of the round. With a favorable finishing stretch, their focus should still be on making a late run up the table. It must start with three points from this match.
So it's clear, both sides have plenty on the line in Friday's clash. Let's examine all the important information for the qualifier, followed by a preview and prediction.
Where: Windsor Park in Belfast, Northern Ireland
When: Friday, Sept. 6, at 2:45 p.m. ET (7:45 p.m. BST)
Watch: Sky Sports 4
Odds: Portugal -330, Northern Ireland +900, Draw +350 (via Bovada)
Top Storyline: Can Portugal get off the World Cup bubble?
The World Cup is a global event that's going to generate a lot of attention, regardless of which nations qualify. That said, it wouldn't be the same without Cristiano Ronaldo, in the midst of his prime, involved in the tournament.
Now's the time for the Real Madrid superstar to step up, put Portugal on his shoulders and carry the squad to the World Cup. He needs to have three straight strong performances to ensure his team doesn't get passed by both Russia and Israel.
A showdown with Israel is set for next month, but Portugal needs to take care of business against a solid Northern Ireland side first. The Norn Iron are going to do everything in their power to push forward and pressure the Seleccao back line because they need three points, too.
That said, this is a match Portugal should win if they play up to their potential. While the onus is on Ronaldo to lead the way, getting support from the likes of Nani and Helder Postiga, among others, would certainly make his job a lot easier.
If Portugal fail to secure three points, it will open the door for Russia and Israel to continue making their respective charges. The pressure is on, and it's time to see how the Seleccao respond.
This should be an extremely entertaining match. Both sides will be desperately seeking the victory, which should lead to a wide-open match with numerous scoring chances on each end. It's a playing style that will ultimately favor the more talented Portugal side.
Expect a close battle for much of the first half and early in the second. After that, look for Ronaldo to take control of the match, making a couple highlight-reel plays to ensure his side is able to earn the win they need to move one step closer to Brazil.
Portugal 3, Northern Ireland 1
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