In today’s final round of group games, two world-class players will try to drag their underperforming teams up to their own high level.
Belgium have six points and Portugal have just one, but neither have played as well as they should have done, neither half as well as Eden Hazard or Cristiano Ronaldo would have wanted them to.
There is rather less resting on Belgium’s game today than on Portugal’s. Hazard, Vincent Kompany and friends have already qualified for the next round. They just need one point against South Korea in Sao Paulo to confirm that they win the group and face the second-placed team from Group G in their second round match.
Portugal want to be those opponents, but they are up against it. They need a big win against Ghana in Brasilia and for a heavy defeat for the United States (or an even heavier one for Germany) in their game in Recife. They have a five-goal deficit to make up on the US. Two 3-0 margins would be enough.
It is an unlikely scenario and one that can only be delivered by one man. Ronaldo has not looked particularly comfortable at the World Cup so far, visibly infuriated in both of Portugal’s games – the 4-0 defeat to Germany and the 2-2 draw with the US – by the gap that exists between him and his team-mates.
But Ronaldo is the only reason Portugal are at the World Cup, and the only reason they are still in it. He scored all four goals in Portugal’s 4-2 play-off win against Sweden, including a legendary hat-trick in Solna. He was the only player who threatened Germany in Portugal’s dismal opening game, and it was his cross which rescued the crucial equaliser against the US.
It is not a sustainable balance, though. Watching Ronaldo so far has been difficult, with the Ballon d’Or holder held back by a knee injury and clearly frustrated by his struggling team-mates. Even if he does pull off the heist tonight – which would be one of his greatest displays – it is hard to see Portugal getting past, in all likelihood, Belgium in the last 16.
Belgium were unconvincing in their first game against Algeria, relying on two subs to turn the game around. Next up, against Russia, they were poor again before Hazard decided, in the final 20 minutes, that he was better than this. Hazard did what Ronaldo could not, and turned the game himself. He demanded the ball, drove forward, asked questions his opponents could not answer and eventually settled the game, setting up Divock Origi for the winner.
It was compelling, but it remains to be seen whether one-man teams can go all the way. Stronger opposition would have taken advantage of Belgium’s disjointed play, as they have done with Portugal. Which is not to say that their system is too unbalanced, though, but if they win their last-16 game, they will most likely face the greatest one-man team of them all: Lionel Messi’s Argentina.
Ronaldo is held back by a knee injury and clearly frustrated by his struggling team-mates
Ronaldo (left) trains with the Portugal squad before they attempt to lift themselves from the foot of Group G against Ghana today afp