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Previews For Eight Of The European Teams Ahead Of The 2014 World Cup Draw

posted 2 Dec 2013, 17:40 by Mpelembe Admin   [ updated 2 Dec 2013, 17:41 ]

Previews for eight of the European teams who will compete at the 2014 World Cup in BrazilBosnia and HerzegovinaCroatia; England; GreeceItaly; Netherlands;Portugal; and Russia ahead of the 2014 World Cup draw on December 5.

SARAJEVOBOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA  (REUTERS / NOVA TV CROATIA / ESTENEWS) - 

BOSNIA AND HERZEGOVINA

Factbox on World Cup qualifiers Bosnia and Herzegovina:

Form and Prospects

Bosnia and Herzegovina, on a high from reaching their first major finals, will be under no pressure to reach the knockout stage and their ability to score goals could make the former Yugoslav republic a serious threat even to the game's top sides.

After missing out narrowly on the 2010 World Cup and Euro 2012, Bosnia stuck to their attack-minded approach, which was richly rewarded.

They were the fourth-highest scoring team in Europe's qualifiers, with strikers Edin Dzeko and Vedad Ibisevic combining for 18 of their 30 goals and playmakersZvjezdan Misimovic and Miralem Pjanic personifying the midfield creativity that carved out the supply routes.

Stoke City goalkeeper Asmir Begovic has been strong, but Bosnia can be suspect at the back against quality opposition, as shown by a 6-2 defeat by Portugal in their Euro 2012 playoff return leg after a goalless first match at home.

Much might hinge on the draw and the composition of Bosnia's group in the finals. If they are pitted against like-minded teams happy to take risks and throw men forward, Bosnia could treat their passionate fans to more delight and reach the last 16.

But having never previously qualified for a major tournament as an independent nation, lack of experience at the highest level and the unfamiliar schedule of playing three games in a short time-span means heading into uncharted territory for a vastly entertaining Bosnian outfit.

Coach: Safet Susic

For all the scoring prowess of Dzeko and Ibisevic, the most lethal strike partnership in World Cup qualifiers, it was the firm hand of Bosnia's soft-spoken coach Safet Susic that steered a talented generation to success.

The 58-year-old, a gifted forward who played for the former Yugoslavia in the 1982 and 1990 World Cups, succeeded Croatian Miroslav Blazevic after Bosnia narrowly missed out on a 2010 World Cup berth with a 1-0 aggregate defeat by Portugal in the playoffs.

Having raised their game to a more entertaining and high-scoring level, Susic retained the faith of fans, the media and the country's football association after the Euro 2012 failure.

Susic finally got his reward in the 2014 qualifiers, as Bosnia edged Greece on goal difference in Group G thanks to an avalanche of scores by Dzeko and Ibisevic.

Key player: Edin Dzeko

Dzeko should be the Balkan country's driving force at the 2014 World Cup in Brazilafter he scored 10 of their 30 goals in Group G, boosting his overall international tally to 33 in 57 appearances.

The 27-year old Manchester City hitman has the ability to score with both feet and is always an aerial menace. His versatility earned him the move to the Premier League in 2011 after he scored 66 league goals in 111 appearances for German side VfL Wolfsburg and won the Bundesliga title with them in 2009.

Dzeko won the FA Cup with City in 2011 and then the Premier League title in 2012 after scoring in a dramatic 3-2 home win over Queens Park Rangers on the final day of the season.

However, he has also struggled to establish himself as first choice up front at the English club, having had to compete with former team mate Mario Balotelli, Argentine Sergio Aguero and most recently Spaniard Alvaro Negredo.

How they qualified: Winners European Group G

2012

Sept 7 Lichtenstein A W 8-1 Dzeko 3, Ibisevic 3, Misimovic 2

Sept 11 Latvia H W 4-1 Misimovic 2, Pjanic, Dzeko

Oct 12 Greece A D 0-0

Oct 16 Lithuania H W 3-0 Ibisevic, Dzeko, Pjanic

2013

March 22 Greece H W 3-1 Dzeko 2, Ibisevic

June 7 Latvia A W 5-0 Lulic, Ibisevic, Medunjanin, Pjanic, Dzeko

Sept 6 Slovakia H L 1-0

Sept 10 Slovakia A W 2-1 Bicackic, Hajrovic

Oct 11 Lichtenstein H W 4-1 Dzeko 2, Misimovic, Ibisevic

Oct 15 Lithuania A W 1-0 Ibisevic

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CROATIA

Factbox on World Cup qualifiers Croatia:

Form and Prospects

Having taken over at a difficult time for Croatia, new coach Niko Kovac passed the European playoff test with flying colours with a 2-0 aggregate win over Iceland that took them to the World Cup finals.

The 42-year old former defensive midfielder replaced Igor Stimac, who was sacked after a 2-0 defeat by Scotland in their final Group A match, only a few weeks before the two-legged decider.

Known for his no-nonsense approach as a player, Kovac hit the ground running to earn a 0-0 draw in the first playoff leg in Reykjavik, a good result after Croatia had picked up only one point in their last four games under Stimac.

His team selection and formation paid dividends in the second leg with an impressive 2-0 win, despite being reduced to 10 men after the first half sending-off of striker Mario Mandzukic, shortly after he scored the opener.

Emulating past glory is never an easy task even for stronger football nations thanCroatia, but that is exactly what the Balkan country of 4.5 million will be asked to do in Brazil by their success-hungry fans.

The Croatians raised the bar in their maiden appearance as an independent nation in 1998 when, led by striker Davor Suker, they reached the world cup semi-finals and went on to beat Holland in the third-place playoff.

But the Croatians have failed to come even close to repeating the feat since, going out narrowly in the group stages in 2002 and 2006 before missing the 2010 tournament after a poor qualifying campaign.

The present generation, led by midfielder Luka Modric and towering striker Mandzukic, has the potential to reach the knockout rounds.

However an ageing defence and imminent suspension for Mandzukic, for his sending off against Iceland, are the chinks in Croatia's armour which coach Kovac must reinforce in order to avoid another early elimination.

Coach: Niko Kovac

Kovac coached the Croatian under-21 side to four wins out of four in their Euro 2015 qualifiers before his promotion to the senior team.

Although he lacks experience at the highest level as a coach, the confident and wily Kovac will hardly be overawed by the task of making an impact at the 2014 World Cup, after being an automatic starter for his country in the 2002 and 2006 tournaments.

He also played in the 1998 qualifying campaign and only missed the finals because he was injured.

As a player, Kovac scored 14 goals in 83 international appearances for Croatia.

Key player: Luka Modric

The form of central midfielder Modric will be crucial for Croatia's bid to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time since their memorable run to the semi-finals in 1998.

Modric's abilities made him a key player at Tottenham Hotspur during his four year-spell at the Premier League club from 2008-2012 and earned him a move to Real Madrid, where he has shown gritty determination to break into the first 11 after struggling in his first season.

The 28-year-old has the vision, passing and close control that goes hand-in-hand with his tireless running and defensive ability utilised by club and country alike.

Having started as an attacking midfielder at Dinamo Zagreb, Modric was often asked to play in a deeper role when he moved to a higher level as his versatility came to the fore.

In his prime heading to Brazil, he should keep pulling the strings in midfield for some time to come after forming a formidable partnership with 19-year old prospectMateo Kovacic, who has been touted as his successor.

How they qualified: Runners-up European Group A

2012

Sept 7 Macedonia H W 1-0 Jelavic

Sept 11 Belgium A D 1-1 Perisic

Oct 12 Macedonia A W 2-1 Corluka, Rakitic

Oct 16 Wales H W 2-0 Mandzukic, Eduardo

2013

March 22 Serbia H W 2-0 Mandzukic, Olic

March 26 Wales A W 2-1 Lovren, Eduardo

June 7 Scotland H L 1-0

Sept 6 Serbia A D 1-1 Mandzukic

Oct 11 Belgium H L 2-1 Kranjcar

Oct 15 Scotland A L 2-0

Playoffs

Nov 15 Iceland A D 0-0

Nov 19 Iceland H W 2-0 Mandzukic, Srna

World Cup record:

Previous appearances: 3 (1998, 2002, 2006)

Best performance: Semi-finalists 1998

Odds: William Hill odds to win World Cup (Nov 2013): 100-1

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ENGLAND

Factbox on World Cup qualifiers England:

Form and Prospects

England qualified for the World Cup with an unbeaten record as European Group H winners. A rousing finale to their campaign brought three wins and a draw from their last four matches, during which they conceded just one goal.

Coach Roy Hodgson, who has previous World Cup experience with Switzerland in 1994, has emerged with credit from the campaign and will spend the next few months considering which young players to take to Brazil alongside the established names.

Under Hodgson, England play with relative caution based on a solid defence, but when he picked winger Andros Townsend against Montenegro in their penultimate qualifier, they played with a refreshing attacking verve in a 4-1 victory.

If Wayne Rooney continues for the rest of the season the way he has started brightly for Manchester United and if veterans Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampardand the injury-prone Jack Wilshere can perform to their best in midfield, England could make a positive impact in Brazil.

They appear reasonably assured at the back, where Gary Cahill and Phil Jagielkalook to have succeeded John Terry and Rio Ferdinand in the centre of defence. Goalkeeper Joe Hart, if he regains his form, is hard to beat.

Rooney, with 38 England goals, is closing in on Sir Bobby Charlton's all-time record of 49 and his Manchester United team mate Danny Welbeck is proving his worth with eight goals in his first 20 internationals.

However, more than most of the other teams, it is what goes on inside the players' heads that will probably determine how successful a World Cup they have.

No European side has won the World Cup in South America. For England to do so would require an enormous surge of self-belief that is probably beyond them.

England have reached eight of the past nine World Cups, but since their triumph in 1966 they have made the semi-finals only once: in Italy in 1990. A similar achievement would be regarded as a big success in Brazil.

Coach: Roy Hodgson

The hugely experienced 66-year-old has coached in many parts of the world and has enjoyed a solid 18 months as boss, with only two defeats in open play in his first 23 matches: friendlies against Sweden in November 2012 and Chile this month.

An old-school man of considerable charm and interests outside of football, he brings a quiet dignity to the position and unusually for an England manager, has not endured a mauling by the British media.

Hodgson is a conservative manager, but cannot be faulted for experimenting with younger, promising players in the build-up to the finals.

Key player: Wayne Rooney

At 28 years of age, Wayne Rooney is at the peak of his physical powers. If England are to make an impression in the finals, Rooney needs to play well.

The departure of manager Sir Alex Ferguson from Manchester United appears to have rejuvenated the striker. He has produced some impressive, hard working performances in the early season and has also carried that form into England's games.

Rooney is also 12 matches away from playing 100 times for England.

This will be his third World Cup. He was sent off in 2006 and did not score then or in 2010, so now would be the perfect time to end that duck. He proved he can score in Brazil, with a fine goal in England's 2-2 draw in Rio in June.

How they qualified: Winners European Group H

2012

Sept 7 Moldova A W 5-0 Lampard 2 (1pen), Defoe, Baines Milner

Sept 11 Ukraine H D 1-1 Lampard pen

Oct 12 San Marino H W 5-0 Rooney 2, Welbeck 2, Oxlade-Chamberlain

Oct 17 Poland A D 1-1 Rooney

2013

March 22 San Marino A W 8-0 Defoe 2, Sturridge, Oxlade-Chamberlain, Young, Lampard, Rooney, og

March 26 Montenegro H D 1-1 Rooney

Sept 6 Moldova H W 4-0 Welbeck 2, Gerrard, Lambert

Sept 10 Ukraine A D 0-0

Oct 11 Montenegro H W 4-1 Rooney, Townsend, Sturridge pen, og

Oct 15 Poland H W 2-0 Rooney, Gerrard

World Cup record:

Previous appearances: 13 (1950, 1954, 1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)

Best performance: Winners 1966

Odds: William Hill odds to win World Cup (Nov 2013): 25-1

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GREECE

Factbox on World Cup qualifiers Greece:

Form and Prospects

If the form book is anything to go by, then the smart money would be on Fernando SantosGreece at least making it through to the knock-out stage of World Cup 2014.

The Greeks are well worth their place in the draw for next Summer's showpiece after seeing off Romania in impressive style in the playoffs on the back of a strong qualifying campaign.

Santos' team finished behind eventual Group G winners Bosnia only on goal difference, with a 3-1 loss to the Bosnians in Zenica proving their only defeat of another solid qualifying campaign, albeit in one of Europe's weaker sections.

With a playing style that makes them hard to beat, but unspectacular up front,Greece chalked up an impressive record of eight wins in their 10 group matches, five of them by 1-0 scorelines.

Santos's ability to 'blood' young players while still keeping a core of trusted veterans in the dressing room such as Giorgos KaragounisFanis Gekas andKostas Katsouranis, has proved a recipe for success.

As ever, Greece will be hard to beat, while providing a considerable threat on the counter-attack with their tried and tested triumvirate strike force of Celtic's Giorgos Samaras, Olympiakos Piraeus striker Kostas Mitroglou and the tireless Dimitris Salpingidis.

Coach: Fernando Santos

The poker-faced 57-year-old, who sticks to a creed in his own words of "tactics first, technical ability second", took over after Greece's World Cup exit in 2010 and has gone about the considerable task of carrying on the good work of predecessor Otto Rehhagel in his own way, bringing stability and success with him.

After a creditable display at Euro 2012, Greece were beaten by Germany in the quarter-finals.

An important factor of Portuguese boss Santos' success is his extensive knowledge of Greek football and culture from his time as a club manager, having coached some of the country's top clubs in AEK Athens, Panathinaikos and PAOK Salonica.

Santos lives permanently in Greece and spends most of his time watching matches and checking on young talent, both at home an across the continent.

He also relies heavily on team manager Takis Fyssas, who was part of Greece's Euro 2004 winning squad, as well as working with the younger representative teams.

Key player: Kostas Mitroglou

There is no doubt that the Olympiakos Piraeus striker is the new darling of the Greek fans and a player who has finally come of age after a frustrating few seasons playing second fiddle at club and international level.

The 25-year-old, who went to Olympiakos from Borussia Moenchengladbach's youth set-up in 2007, has always shown a flair for goals, but as well as an impressive strike rate, he has now shown an increased maturity in leading the attack and bringing other players into the game.

Although a little media shy Mitroglou, who has scored 41 goals in 84 appearances for Olympiakos, is affectionately known as 'Mitrogoal' and 'Pistolero' by his club's fanatical fans for his gun-toting goal celebrations.

The 2013-14 campaign has unquestionably been his breakthrough season.

He became the first Greek player to score a hat-trick in the UEFA Champions League with a treble at Anderlecht in October and he has run riot in the domesticSuper League by notching up 14 goals in 10 matches, including three hat-tricks.

While not noted for his pace, Mitroglou's key attributes are his intelligent movement off the ball, physical strength and a powerful long range shot.

How they qualified: Runners-up European Group G

2012

Sept 7 Latvia A W 2-1 Spiropoulos, Gekas

Sept 11 Lithuania H W 2-0 Ninis, Mitroglou

Oct 12 Bosnia H D 0-0

Oct 16 Slovakia A W 1-0 Salpingidis

2013

March 22 Bosnia A L 1-3 Gekas

June 7 Lithuania A W 1-0 Christodoulopoulos

Sept 6 Liechtenstein A W 1-0 Mitroglou

Sept 10 Latvia H W 1-0 Salpingidis

Oct 11 Slovakia H W 1-0 Skrtel og

Oct 15 Liechtenstein H W 2-0 Salpingidis, Karagounis

Playoffs

Nov 15 Romania H W 3-1 Mitroglou 2, Salpingidis

Nov 19 Romania A D 1-1 Mitroglou

World Cup record:

Previous appearances: 2 (1994, 2010)

Best performance: Never past group stage

Odds: William Hill odds to win World Cup (Nov 2013): 200-1

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ITALY

Factbox on World Cup qualifiers Italy:

Form and Prospects

On the face of it, four-time winners Italy should be considered among the favourites to lift the World Cup. Since Cesare Prandelli took over the Azzurri in 2010 they have reached the Euro 2012 final and they qualified for the Summer trip to Brazilwith two games to spare.

Italy have a formidable tournament record and a knack of reserving their best displays for when it really matters, while their line-up contains some of the world's most accomplished players, including midfield maestros Andrea Pirlo and Daniele De Rossi; volatile striker Mario Balotelli; and evergreen goalkeeper Gianluigi Buffon.

However, their performances in qualification, while by-and-large effective, were not thrilling and questions remain over a backline which concedes too many headed goals.

Defensive sloppiness and lapses in concentration saw them draw with Denmarkand Armenia in their final two group games, having already qualified, costing them top seed status in the draw.

Coach Prandelli is also struggling to find a stable strike partner for Balotelli. Much will rest on how quickly the AC Milan attacker can form an understanding with in-form Giuseppe Rossi, who is only just returning to international duty after a two-year injury nightmare.

The Italians have lacked inspiration in the final third in recent months and they don't have anyone in their squad as creative as former greats Roberto Baggio,Gianfranco Zola and Alessandro Del Piero.

Napoli's Lorenzo Insigne and Lazio midfielder Antonio Candreva have, in particular, flattered to deceive, meaning that Italy's World Cup showing could hinge on USA-born Rossi's ability to stay fit.

The recent 2-2 draw with Nigeria showed that Balotelli and Rossi have potential as a pairing, with the former setting up the latter's 12th-minute opener and each showing a degree of understanding as yet unseen from any other attacking partnership.

Should they click, their goal threat will make Italy serious contenders.

Coach: Cesare Prandelli

The World Cup will probably be Prandelli's last shot at international success with his national team.

The 56-year-old is expected to leave the Italy hot-seat after the tournament, most likely to take over from Massimiliano Allegri at AC Milan.

After more than three years in charge, Italy still look to be in a transitional period, but Prandelli is moulding the Azzurri in the image of his flamboyant Fiorentina side and wants to send out a team that has his stamp on it.

Prandelli favours an attacking style of play which has brought results, with Italy only losing two competitive games since he took over after Italy's poor 2010 World Cup campaign, one of which was the Euro 2012 final and the other an exciting 4-2 defeat to hosts Brazil in last Summer's Confederations Cup.

He has tried with some success to bring through a new generation and is keen for a more vibrant, dynamic edge to Italy's play, while maintaining the resilience that saw them triumph in such dramatic style in 2006.

Key player: Andrea Pirlo

He might be battling for supremacy at Juventus with French newcomer Paul Pogba, but Andrea Pirlo is the undisputed midfield kingpin for the Azzurri.

His pinpoint passing and precision set-pieces are crucial to Italy's attacks, while his seemingly effortless ability to retain the ball keeps the side ticking over when they need to defend a lead.

Unlike the more erratic headline-grabber Balotelli, Pirlo is as dependable as he is talented.

Incredibly, the 34-year-old has made noises about leaving Juve in the Summer should he not start more games for the Italian champions, but there is no doubting his place in the national team, where he has made 107 appearances since his debut in 2002.

If Italy are to do any damage at the World Cup, they will need to be driven by the man Marcello Lippi called "the silent leader who speaks with his feet".

How they qualified: Winners European Group B

2012

Sept 7 Bulgaria A D 2-2 Osvaldo 2

Sept 11 Malta H W 2-0 Destro, Peluso

Oct 12 Armenia A W 3-1 Pirlo (pen), De Rossi, Osvaldo

Oct 16 Denmark H W 3-1 Montolivo, De Rossi, Balotelli

March 26 Malta H W 2-0 Balotelli 2 (1pen)

June 7 Czech Republic D 0-0

2013

Sept 6 Bulgaria H W 1-0 Gilardino

Sept 10 Czech Republic H W 2-1 Chiellini, Balotelli (pen)

Oct 11 Denmark A D 2-2 Osvaldo, Aquilani

Oct 15 Armenia H D 2-2 Florenzi, Balotelli

World Cup record:

Previous appearances: 17 (1934, 1938, 1950, 1954, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1974, 1978, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2002, 2006, 2010)

Best performances: Winners 1934, 1938, 1982, 2006

Odds: William Hill odds to win World Cup (Nov 2013): 20-1

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NETHERLANDS

Factbox on World Cup qualifiers Netherlands:

Form and prospects

The Dutch were the first European country to book their place in Brazil, ending the year unbeaten in 13 games, but are still far from the quality product that came so close to World Cup success in 2010.

The likes of Nigel de JongArjen RobbenRobin van PersieWesley Sneijder andRafael van der Vaart are still regulars after leading roles in helping the Dutch to reach the 2010 final.

However, coach Louis van Gaal has overhauled the team in the wake of a disappointing Euro 2012 tournament in Poland and Ukraine, where the highly fancied Dutch lost all three of their group games.

Van Gaal lost his first game back in charge, but has gone 17 matches without defeat since a 4-2 friendly loss to Belgium.

Netherlands eased competently through their qualifying group as they won nine of their 10 matches, scoring 34 goals and conceding just five.

Top place was secured in the tiny stadium in Andorra, with two matches still to play.

The Dutch campaign included an 8-1 home thumping of Hungary and impressive away victories in Bucharest and Istanbul, but recent friendlies have shown up some weaknesses.

Coach: Louis van Gaal.

Van Gaal, 62, began his second spell as coach of the Dutch national team, replacing Bert van Marwijk, after the last European Championship and will retire after the tournament in Brazil.

He failed to take Netherlands to the 2002 finals in Asia, but made sure of redemption by steering the squad through a near flawless campaign this time around.

A strict disciplinarian, Van Gaal made his name at Ajax Amsterdam, where he won the Champions League in 1995, before winning two Spanish titles with Barcelona.

He also won the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich in 2010, but was dismissed the next season

Key player: Robin van Persie

The Manchester United striker captains the national side and during the qualifying campaign broke the record for the most goals by a Dutch international, overtakingPatrick Kluivert to reach 41 in 79 appearances.

The 30-year-old scored 11 goals in the 2014 qualifying campaign, including a last-gasp goal in Estonia that maintained an unbeaten record for the Dutch.

Van Persie broke through at Feyenoord, but only won his first cap after joining Arsenal.

His move from the London club to Manchester United was a contentious affair last season, on top of a 22.5-million pound fee, but he won league honours in his first campaign.

How they qualified: Winners European Group D

2012

Sept 7 Turkey H W 2-0 Van Persie, Narsingh

Sept 11 Hungary A W 4-1 Lens 2, Indi Martins, Huntelaar

Oct 12 Andorra H W 3-0 Van der Vaart Huntelaar, Schaken

Oct 16 Romania A W 4-1 Lens, Indi Martins, Van der Vaart pen, Van Persie

2013

March 22 Estonia H W 3-0 Van der Vaart, Van Persie, Schaken

March 26 Romania H W 4-0 Van der Vaart, Van Persie 2 (1 pen), Lens

Sept 6 Estonia A D 2-2 Robben, Van Persie

Sept 10 Andorra A W 2-0 Van Persie 2

Oct 11 Hungary H W 8-1 Van Persie 3, Strootman, Lens, Devecseri og, Van der Vaart, Robben

Oct 15 Turkey A W 2-0 Robben, Sneijder

World Cup record:

Previous appearances: 9 (1934, 1938, 1974, 1978, 1990, 1994, 1998, 2006, 2010)

Best performances: Runners up 1974, 1978, 2010.

Odds: William Hill odds to win World Cup (Nov 2013): 16-1

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PORTUGAL

Factbox on World Cup qualifiers Portugal:

Form and Prospects

The mood in the Portuguese camp could hardly be more ebullient as they reached their eighth consecutive international tournament in style, with captain Cristiano Ronaldo netting all four goals of their 4-2 aggregate playoff win over Sweden.

But in fact, the Portuguese endured a difficult qualification, held to unexpected draws with Northern Ireland and Israel and forced to the playoff after losing Group F's top spot to Russia.

They also reached the previous two tournaments, Euro 2012 and the 2010 World Cup, via the playoffs, with wins over Bosnia.

The technically-savvy Portuguese are expected to go at least beyond the group phase but, on a good day, can beat any team and may fancy breaking their record of a third place finish in 1966, which showcased Benfica great Eusebio.

It's in their DNA to play a possession game, ripping defenders apart with short passing, but these days they can also mix this with long passes into space for the pacy likes of Ronaldo and Nani to run on to.

After Ronaldo, midfield dynamo Joao Moutinho has become the most influential player in the team, dictating pace, tirelessly recovering balls and delivering pinpoint assists.

Joao Pereira and Fabio Coentrao are two energetic full backs who enjoy attacking, and Portugal has in Pepe and Bruno Alves a fiery, intense, duo of centre backs.

Although Ronaldo can conjure up a goal from nothing, coach Paulo Bento has recognised they are chronically wasteful up front, where strikers Helder Postigaand Hugo Almeida are often less than clinical.

Experienced players like Raul Meireles (aged 30), Bruno Alves (31), Postiga (31), Nani (27) and Miguel Veloso (27) are part of a generation that guided Portugal to a fourth place in the 2006 Germany World Cup and the semi-finals of Euro 2012.

Coach: Paulo Bento

The no-nonsense Paulo Bento, a combative defensive midfielder as a player, has successfully driven his national team to a second big tournament under his leadership.

The fans sometimes criticise him for what they see as a conservative approach to the game, sticking to a similar set of players over the qualifying campaign and overly cautious in substitutions, but the fact is that he has delivered, so far.

Bento picked up the pieces when Portugal's Euro 2012 qualifying hopes were in shambles and was dubbed their "miracle worker", qualifying twice through a playoff.

Bento, 44, has also been involved in some fallouts, including spats with defendersRicardo Carvalho and Jose Bosingwa. who left the squad under his helm.

Key player: Cristiano Ronaldo

Ronaldo will undoubtedly be one of the main showmen of the tournament.

He has underperformed in big tournaments in the past, scoring only once at Euro 2008 and the World Cups in Germany and

South Africa.

But he upped his game in Euro 2012, scoring three times before Portugal were knocked out by eventual winners Spain in the semi-finals.

Now 28 and at the peak of his physical powers, his goals proved vital in qualifying, scoring two hat-tricks as he took his tally for Portugal to 47, sharing the mark withPauleta at the top of the national side's scoring chart.

With 109 caps, 18 fewer than Portugal's record holder Luis Figo, the Madeira-born Ronaldo seems set to break all the national team records.

Ronaldo's drive seems as great as ever and his array of pace, tricks, dummies and clinical finishing is bound to steal many headlines next Summer, as will the rivalry with his Argentine nemesis, Lionel Messi.

How they qualified: Runners-up European Group F

2012

Sept 7 Luxembourg A W 1-2 Ronaldo, Postiga

Sept 11 Azerbaijan H W 3-0 Varela, Postiga, Alves

Oct 12 Russia A L 0-1

Oct 16 Northern Ireland H D 1-1 Postiga

2013

March 22 Israel A D 3-3 Alves, Postiga, Coentrao

March 26 Azerbaijan A W 2-0 Alves, Almeida

June 7 Russia H W 1-0 Postiga

Sept 6 Northern Ireland A W 4-2 Alves, Ronaldo 3

Oct 11 Israel H D 1-1 Costa

Oct 15 Luxembourg H W 3-0 Varela, Nani, Postiga

Playoff

Nov 15 Sweden H W 1-0 Ronaldo

Nov 19 Sweden A W 3-2 Ronaldo 3

World Cup record:

Previous appearances: 5 (1966, 1986, 2002, 2006, 2010)

Best performance: Semi finals 1966 (3rd), 2006 (4th)

Odds: William Hill odds to win World Cup (Nov 2013): 33-1

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RUSSIA

Factbox on World Cup qualifiers Russia:

Form and Prospects

Russia won Europe's Group F ahead of Portugal, having sealed their berth in next year's finals after a 1-1 draw at Azerbaijan in their final qualifier.

Having not reached the World Cup since 2002, Russia recruited head coach Fabio Capello and collected 22 points from seven wins and the draw at Azerbaijan, with away defeats by Portugal and Northern Ireland the only blemishes.

Russia are a disciplined and well-organised team, who conceded only five goals during the qualifying campaign, but they lack flair and creativity in midfield and can struggle against top-level opposition.

Capello moulded them into a competitive, if unspectacular team and the Italian will need all his key men on top form if they are to make an impact in Brazil.

He continues to reject calls from the media and fans to bring back former captainAndrey Arshavin, despite the experienced midfielder's good recent form for his club Zenit St Petersburg.

Coach: Fabio Capello

A former Italy midfielder, Capello has a remarkable record of success as a club coach, winning domestic titles with Milan, AS Roma, Juventus and Real Madrid and the European Cup with Milan.

Capello led England to the 2010 World Cup finals and then the Euro 2012 finals, but resigned a few months before the championship.

He took over as Russia coach in July last year, replacing Dutchman Dick Advocaatand quickly instilling a new sense of discipline and personal responsibility.

The Italian has yet to sign a contract extension, but he is expected to put pen to paper on a new four-year deal that will see him stay in charge for the World Cup finals in 2018, which will be hosted by Russia.

Key player: Alexander Kerzhakov

The Zenit St Petersburg striker is the country's most prolific scorer with 211 goals in competitive matches.

Kerzhakov made his Russia debut in March 2002 and was part of Oleg Romantsev's squad at the World Cup finals in Japan and South Korea. The forward also played at the Euro 2004 and the Euro 2012.

He scored 24 goals in 77 internationals and is two strikes short of Vladimir Beschastnykh's record. In 2006 he joined Sevilla, helping the Spanish side win the UEFA Cup, Copa del Rey and the Spanish Supercup in 2007.

How they qualified: Winners European Group F

2012

Sept 7 N. Ireland H W 2-0 Faizulin, Shirokov pen

Sept 11 Israel A W 4-0 Kerzhakov 2, Kokorin, Faizulin

Oct 12 Portugal H W 1-0 Kerzhakov

Oct 16 Azerbaijan H W 1-0 Shirokov pen

2013

June 7 Portugal A L 1-0

June 11 N.Ireland A L 1-0

Sept 6 Luxembourg H W 4-1 Kokorin 2, Kerzhakov, Samedov

Sept 10 Israel H W 3-1 Berezutski, Kokorin, Glushakov

Oct 11 Luxembourg A W 4-0 Samedov, Faizulin, Glushakov, Kerzhakov

Oct 15 Azerbaijan A D 1-1 Shirokov

World Cup record

Previous appearances: 7 as Soviet Union team, 2 as Russia (1958, 1962, 1966, 1970, 1982, 1986, 1990, 1994, 2002)

Best performance: 4th in 1966

Odds: William Hill odds to win World Cup (Nov 2013): 80-1


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