DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Back-to-back wins. Qualification with a game to spare. Cristiano Ronaldo already among the goal scorers. The group stage could hardly have gone any better for Portugal at the World Cup.
There’s still one loose end to tie up.
Portugal needs a point in its last Group H match against South Korea on Friday to guarantee finishing in first place. That might come with a perk — avoiding Brazil in the last 16.
“If we had to face each other, it would be a game between two great teams,” Portugal coach Fernando Santos said. “But our wish, and Brazil’s, is that we meet later on.”
After the 2-0 win over Uruguay on Monday, Santos said he wasn’t planning to rest too many key players against South Korea. Ronaldo may be an exception.
Three games in nine days could prove to be too much for the 37-year-old striker, who hasn’t played significant minutes this season for Manchester United — the English team which recently terminated its contract with Ronaldo after his explosive pre-World Cup interview blasting the club’s manager, owners and even his teammates.
Ronaldo missed team training on Wednesday, instead completing a session in the gym, and there’s a chance he will be saved for the last 16. That would give the likes of Gonçalo Ramos or Andre Silva a rare chance to start up front.
“He’ll be training today,” Santos said Thursday about Ronaldo. “If he is well enough physically, he will be playing. I don’t even know if the chance is 50-50. It depends on our training session. I hope he’ll be able to play.”
Also missing are center back Danilo Pereira, who broke three ribs in training last week, and left back Nuno Mendes, who was substituted in the first half against Uruguay because of a muscle injury and has been ruled out of the rest of the World Cup.
Santos said he will take into account which players are tired and also who has already collected a yellow card, to avoid the threat of suspension. The players who have been booked are Ruben Dias, Ruben Neves, Joao Felix, Bruno Fernandes and Danilo.
“We have to use the squad,” Santos said, “and I am confident in it.”
If selected, Fernandes will look to continue his strong form that has seen him score two goals — one of them contested by Ronaldo against Uruguay — and set up two others.
South Korea needs a win as well as a favor in the other game taking place concurrently, between Ghana and Uruguay, to join Portugal in advancing from the group.
A win for Ghana, which is in second place on three points — three behind Portugal and two clear of South Korea and Uruguay, would mean the South Koreans cannot qualify whatever their result at Education City Stadium outside Doha.
It could prove to be the final game in charge of South Korea for Paulo Bento, a Portuguese coach who said Thursday he will sing the national anthem of his native country before the match starts.
“I was born a Portuguese and I’ll die a Portuguese,” he said. “I’m proud to be from Portugal.”
In a twist of fate, the last of Bento’s 35 games as a player for Portugal came against South Korea in their third and final group game at the 2002 World Cup. South Korea won 1-0 to advance and eventually reached the semifinals.
Bento went on to coach Portugal from 2010-14, leading the team at the European Championship in 2012 and the World Cup in 2014.
Son Heung-min has yet to score at the tournament for South Korea, which followed a 0-0 draw against Uruguay with a wild 3-2 loss to Ghana. Son, though, doesn’t seem to be too affected by wearing a protective mask after sustaining multiple fractures around his left eye in a challenge while playing for Tottenham in the Champions League.
Steve Douglas is at https://twitter.com/sdouglas80
AP World Cup coverage: https://apnews.com/hub/world-cup and https://twitter.com/AP_Sports
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