FIFA World Cup Group H Preview: How much will Ronaldo’s turmoil affect Portugal?

FIFA World Cup Group H Preview: How much will Ronaldo’s turmoil affect Portugal?

Cristiano Ronaldo decided to go on a crusade against Manchester United a week before the start of the World Cup. 

Unhappy about riding the bench at Old Trafford, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner recorded an interview with Piers Morgan who let the 37-year-old Ronaldo have a go at his own club. With a pair of his United teammates — Bruno Fernandes and Diogo Dalot — with him on the national team in Qatar, how much of an impact will this have on Portugal’s team spirit?

I’ll let you in on something: If you’re a fan of competitive sports, Group H may well be the most interesting 2022 World Cup group to follow. 

Every nation in this group has a case for advancing to the Round of 16. Some are more of a long shot than others but every match will be loads of fun. Revenge matches, incredible talent, high-octane tournament football. What’s not to love?

GROUP H SCHEDULE

Nov. 24: Uruguay vs. Korea Rep. (8 a.m. ET)
Nov. 24: Portugal vs. Ghana (11 a.m. ET)
Nov. 28: Korea Rep. vs. Ghana (8 a.m. ET)
Nov. 28: Portugal vs. Uruguay (2 p.m. ET)
Dec. 2: Korea Rep. vs. Portugal (10 a.m. ET)
Dec. 2: Ghana vs. Uruguay (10 a.m. ET)


 

THE TEAMS

PORTUGAL
FIFA world ranking: 9
Top scorer in qualifying: Cristiano Ronaldo (6 goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +841 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: -150

Previous World Cup appearances: 7
Best showing: Third place (1966)
2018 World Cup: Round of 16

Manager: Fernando Santos
Probable formation: 4-2-3-1
Probable starting XI: Diogo Costa (FC Porto) — Nuno Mendes (PSG/France), Ruben Dias (Manchester City/England), Danilo Pereira (PSG/France), Joao Cancelo (Manchester City/England) — Ruben Neves (Wolves/England), William Carvalho (Real Betis/Spain) — Bruno Fernandes (Manchester United/England), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City/England), Rafael Leao (AC Milan/Italy) — Cristiano Ronaldo (Manchester United/England). 

The Big Question: What will Portugal do with Cristiano Ronaldo? 

The Pulse: The timing of Ronaldo’s scorching interview was poor. It might have been great for his own interests but not for his national team. Portugal are a very strong side with incredibly talented players and should be able to power through this group. This will most likely be Ronaldo’s last World Cup, so why rant about your own personal interests and impact the the state of your national team? By doing his interview now, it appears as though Ronaldo is more focused on his next club move in the January transfer window rather than the tournament in Qatar.

That doesn’t seem very fair to the Portuguese players as this story is likely to hover over the national team at the World Cup. It also doesn’t seem fair to his Red Devil teammates, especially Fernandes who was caught in the middle of an awkward moment with Ronaldo as he arrived to the Portuguese camp for the first time. 

Midfielder Joao Mario later diffused the incident in a press conference, saying: “It was a joke between them because Bruno was one of the last to arrive and Cristiano asked if he had come by boat.” 

How will that drama translate on the pitch? Is this just a tempest in a teapot for the Portuguese national team? This group is trickier than it looks, so there little leeway for a team that could enter the tournament with off-field distractions.

The X-factor: Rafael Leao will enter the World Cup on a high. The 23-year-old winger helped AC Milan capture their first Serie A title since 2010-11 last season and has put in seven goals and eight assists in all competitions in the 2022-23 campaign. Can he provide some added offence, especially with Liverpool forward Diogo Jota out for the tournament?

The Breakout Candidate: Portugal’s veteran goalkeeper Rui Patricio has passed the baton to 23-year-old Diogo Costa. The FC Porto keeper will be between the pipes in his first major tournament for the senior national team and could be one of the next great Portuguese players to transfer out of the domestic league.  


 

Ghana’s Inaki Williams (right) attempts a shot at goal in front of Brazil’s Gleison Bremer during the international friendly soccer match between Brazil and Ghana. (Christophe Ena/AP)

GHANA
FIFA world ranking: 61
Top scorer in qualifying: Andre Ayew and Thomas Partey (3 goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +15,100 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +1,200

Previous World Cup appearances: 3
Best showing: Quarter-finals (2010)
2018 World Cup: Did not qualify

Manager: Otto Addo
Probable formation: 4-2-3-1
Probable starting XI: Abdul Nurudeen (KAS Eupen/Belgium) — Abdul-Rahman Baba (Reading/England), Daniel Amartey (Leicester/England), Mohammed Salisu (Southampton/England), Tariq Lamptey (Brighton/England) — Thomas Partey (Arsenal/England), Mohammed Kudus (Ajax/Netherlands) — Andre Ayew (Al-Sadd/Qatar), Issahaku Fatawu (Sporting CP/Portugal), Felix Afena-Gyan (Cremonese/Italy) — Inaki Williams (Athletic Bilbao/Spain).

The Big Question: Ghana has a very interesting team on paper but will that translate on the pitch in Qatar? 

The Pulse: This is not the Ghana squad of yesteryear that gave everyone hope an African nation would finally win a World Cup. Ghana’s renowned striker Asamoah Gyan is no longer on the team. Neither is Kevin-Prince Boateng, Sulley Munatri or Anthony Annan. 

But Ghana made strides with dual-national players ahead of the World Cup. The highest-profile addition for the Black Stars is undoubtedly Basque country-born Inaki Williams. The Athletic Bilbao star had only one cap with Spain before deciding to join his parents’ nation at 28-years-old. Dennis Odoi, 34, made a switch from Belgium to Ghana, while Brighton’s Tariq Lamptey and Southampton’s Mohammed Salisu also joined in September. 

Ghana’s most solid presence in midfield is Arsenal’s Thomas Partey. Brothers Andre and Jordan Ayew will hope to rekindle their country’s 2010 magic. 

A sign of strength for many African nations over the past few years has been trusting African managers over Europeans to lead their squads in major competitions. Aliou Cisse has done wonders with his native Senegal, winning the African Cup of Nations in 2021. Ghana tapped in former national team player Otto Addo to lead the squad in 2022. Addo was an assistant at Denmark’s FC Norsjaelland, a talent coach in Germany for Borussia Monchegladbach and an assistant at Borussia Dortmund but the World Cup will be his first tournament as manager. 

The X-factor: Inaki Williams is a huge addition to this Ghana national team. After missing out on World Cups and Euros with Spain, Williams will finally be able to showcase his talent at a major international tournament. 

Williams’ career in Bilbao is nothing short of inspiring. He became La Liga’s Ironman with a 203rd consecutive appearance last year and hasn’t missed a game for Bilbao since April, 10, 2016. The striker is influenced by his parents, who left Ghana and walked across the Sahara desert barefoot to get to Bilbao before he and his brother Felix were born. In return, Williams has only played for Athletic Bilbao — except for a short stint at another Basque club CD Basconia in 2013.

Should Ghana play Spain, Inaki could cross paths with Felix who was selected for the Spanish national team. 

The Breakout Candidate: Issahaku Fatawu left his native Ghana for Sporting CP in Portugal last summer and is already getting interest from Manchester United, Everton and Liverpool, according to Portuguese news outlet O Jogo. He has made six appearances with the Portuguese club, including two in the Champions League against Marseille and Spurs. 


 

Uruguay’s Luis Suarez (left) embraces teammate Edinson Cavani after winning 1-0 in a qualifying match against Peru. (Matilde Campodonico/AP)

URUGUAY
FIFA world ranking: 14
Top scorer in qualifying: Luis Suarez (8 goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +2,428 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +202

Previous World Cup appearances: 13
Best showing: Champions (1930, 1950)
2018 World Cup: Quarterfinals

Manager: Diego Alonso
Probable formation: 4-3-3
Probable starting XI: Sergio Rochet (Nacional) — Ronald Araujo (Barcelona/Spain), Jose Maria Jimenez (Atletico Madrid/Spain), Sebastian Coates (Sporting CP/Portugal) — Frederico Valverde (Real Madrid/Spain), Rodrigo Betancur (Tottenham/England), Matias Vecino (Lazio/Italy) — Darwin Nunez (Liverpool/England), Luis Suarez (Nacional), Edinson Cavani (Valencia/Spain).

The Big Question: Will Uruguay’s blend of youth and experience prove to be a force within Group H?

The Pulse: The Uruguayans have put their trust in the Edinson Cavani-Luis Suarez duo for a long time. The squad lived and breathed with their offensive presence but both players are now 35-years-old. Cavani has always produced everywhere he’s been and is doing the same with his new club Valencia. The veteran striker bagged four goals in seven appearances in his first La Liga season. 

Suarez opted to return home with Nacional after his fallout with Atletico Madrid. He helped his boyhood club win the league title with eight goals in 20 appearances but will already leave the team on a free transfer in January. Along with centre back Diego Godin, they will be entering a fourth World Cup. This will most probably be a last go for the attacking duo and they’ll need the help of the younger generation to make a run. 

Uruguay’s final match of the group stage will be a re-match of the infamous 2010 quarterfinal against Ghana. Luis Suarez was called for a handball on the goal line that earned him a red card. His controversial play helped the Uruguayans advance (Asamoah Gyan struck the crossbar on his penalty attempt) and prevented Ghana from becoming the first African nation to reach the semifinals.

The X-Factor: Speaking of the younger generation, Darwin Nunez is set to make his much-awaited World Cup debut in Qatar. The 23-year-old made an 80-million Euro move to Liverpool in the summer and scored five goals in his first 10 Premier League games. Nunez has added three goals for his new club in the Champions League. 

With Uruguay passing the torch between generations in this World Cup, Nunez reflects where La Celeste is headed going forward.  

The Breakout Candidate: Manchester United fans may be familiar with Facundo Pellestri. The Red Devils acquired the winger from Uruguayan club Penarol in 2020 and the 20-year-old has yet to pierce the lineup but Diego Alonso still called him up to the national team. The youngster won’t start games but could be a sneaky substitute off the bench.

Son Heung-min dribbles the ball during a friendly match between South Korea and Cameroon. (Lee Jin-man/AP)

KOREA REPUBLIC
FIFA world ranking: 28
Top scorer in qualifying: Son Heung-Min (7 goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +15,100 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +800

Previous World Cup appearances: 10
Best showing: Fourth place (2002)
2018 World Cup: Group stage 

Manager: Paulo Bento
Probable formation: 4-1-4-1
Probable starting XI: Kim Seung-Gyu (Al-Shabab/Saudi Arabia) — Kim Moon-Hwan (Jeonbuk Hyundai), Kim Min-Jae (Napoli/Italy), Kwon Kyung-Won (Gamba Osaka/Japan), Kim Jin-Su — Chul Hong (Daegu FC) — Jung Woo-Young (Al-Sadd/Qatar), Hwang Hee-Chang (Wolves/England), Hwang In-Beom (Olympiacos/Greece), Son Heun-Min (Tottenham/England) — Hwang Ui-Jo (Olympiacos/Greece)

The Big Question: How fit is Son Heung-Min? 

The Pulse: It’s not just because Son suits up for Tottenham, he is Asia’s top player and one of the top players in the league. The 30-year-old shared the Premier League golden boot with Mohamed Salah last season.  

But Son fractured his eye socket in a Champions League match with Marseille on Nov. 1 and underwent surgery. Nonetheless, the winger is in Qatar and has been training with his Korean teammates wearing a facemask. He said in a press conference, “I came here despite the fact that I am injured and fully aware that there is always a risk of getting hurt. It’s difficult to say that ‘I will play in every match.’ I would like to update you after monitoring my condition day-by-day, and step-by-step.” Son is a world class player and his current condition could make or break Korea’s World Cup campaign. 

Defensively, Korea will be able to count on Kim Min-Jae’s solid presence on the back line. The 26-year-old made a move to Serie A club Napoli during the summer and has been tasked with filling the shoes of star centre back Kalidou Koulibaly who had left for Chelsea. 

The X-factor: If Son has the potential to be Korea’s Batman in Qatar, Hwang Hee-Chan could be their Robin. The striker, who also plays on the wing, had been at Premier League club Wolves on loan from RB Leipzig in 2021 and scored five goals in 30 appearances. He finally made a 16-million Euro permanent move to Wolves in July but has yet to find the back of the net this season.  

The Breakout Star: If veteran striker Hwang Ui-Jo doesn’t find the back of the net, 24-year-old Cho Gue-Sung could step up and help his country succeed. The striker scored 21 goals and seven assists in 35 games in all competitions on loan at Korean first division club Gimcheon Sangmu in the 2022 season. 


 

BOLD PREDICTION FOR GROUP H

In a Last Dance moment for their top stars, Uruguay will win the group. Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal will take second place despite the drama.

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