Can Portugal ride Ronaldo’s knack for winning to World Cup success?

When soccer players reach a certain age, the prevailing expectation is that they begin to slow down, both in their physical pace and in the rate at which they win trophies. While the former may be universally true, the exception to the rule for the latter would seem to be Cristiano Ronaldo.

If anything, the Real Madrid superstar’s rate of racking up hardware has accelerated. Between club and country, the 33-year-old forward has won four out of the five major European trophies available to him since the 2014 World Cup. Ronaldo’s total trophy haul in the last four years sits at nine, two better than it had been in the previous four years, and three better than it had been in the four years before that.

In short, Ronaldo is a serial winner who continues to collect silverware faster than a petty thief in a hotel banquet room. And despite standing at the precipice of his mid-30s, he shows little sign of slowing down. The question for Portugal is, can they harness Ronaldo’s knack for winning at the World Cup in Russia this summer?

Two years ago at the European Championship in France, Ronaldo notched three goals and three assists as he captained Portugal to the final. Stretchered off in the 25th minute after a challenge from Dimitri Payet, he was reduced to the role of a cheerleader, standing on the sidelines, willing what in his absence looked like a very average Portugal team to victory over host-nation France, who then, as now, ranked among the tournament’s favorites. Critics may rightfully point out that Portugal won the Euros without ever really playing the kind of soccer that gets pulses racing, but they won it nonetheless.

Yet despite storming through the qualifying group with nine wins in 10, banging in 32 goals along the way, and arriving at the World Cup as European champions, Portugal isn’t really among the favorites this summer. Drawn into Group B with Spain, Morocco and Iran, coach Fernando Santos’ team does look a safe bet to reach the round of 16, and very probably the quarterfinals. But that’s where things could get tricky.

At the Euros, Portugal drew all three of the group stage matches and were fortunate to not meet a truly world-class opponent until the final against France. This time around there won’t be the luxury of growing into the tournament, as Portugal is set to open the World Cup against Spain. If the Portuguese fail to top their group, they could find Luis Suarez’s Uruguay waiting for them in the second round.

Two years on and Portugal’s defense is perhaps not quite what it was at the Euros either. Of the defenders in Santos’ squad for Russia, only Pepe could ever really have been called world-class. Now a bit past his prime, he remains a red card waiting to happen, even at 35. Time has similarly caught up with Portugal’s other center-halves. After bombing at West Ham, Jose Fonte, 34, now plays in the Chinese Super League. Meanwhile, Bruno Alves, 36, has struggled for game time at his Scottish side, Rangers.

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There have been other changes to the team that won the Euros. Eder, goal-scoring hero of the final at Stade de France, didn’t even make the squad. In his stead, Santos has come to favor Andre Silva, a 22-year-old AC Milan striker who banged in nine goals during qualifying.

Silva is part of a stronger supporting cast that now surrounds Ronaldo in the attack heading to Russia. Other new additions to the team include Manchester City playmaker Bernardo Silva (no relation) and Gonçalo Guedes, a Paris Saint-Germain striker whose late goal-scoring surge – he netted two in a recent 3-0 win over Algeria – could see him in contention to partner Ronaldo in Santos’ preferred 4-4-2.

While Portugal’s attacking prowess is undeniable, it’s when you glance further afield that it gets a little less reassuring. The defense looks shaky and the midfield could politely be called uninspiring. It wasn’t really a factor in qualifying, as Santos’ side merely blitzed the opposition, regularly dropping 6-0 and 5-1 score lines on opponents. But it’s much easier to rain down on the likes of the Faroe Islands and Andorra than it is on Spain and Uruguay.

Adding to the uncertainty around Portugal is the instability at Portuguese powerhouse Sporting Lisbon, where key squad members Rui Patricio, Gelson Martins, Bruno Fernandes and William Carvalho play at club level. All four of them recently walked away from the club in the wake of an incident that saw 50 masked supporters attack players on their training ground to express displeasure over a disappointing season.

But in spite of the deficiencies, Portugal still retains one thing that no other team has: Ronaldo.

Playing in what is almost certainly his last World Cup, the former Manchester United man continues to be a difference-maker in the big games. He scored 15 goals in qualifying and was the top scorer in the Champions League this season. He’s also currently the bookies’ favorite to win his sixth Ballon d’Or. Were he to succeed in captaining Portugal to World Cup glory, he could genuinely stake a legitimate claim to being the greatest player of all time.

In the NBA playoffs this spring, we witnessed how one highly motivated superstar player with a reasonably talented, if unspectacular supporting cast, could haul his team to a final. Although, ultimately, we also saw how a superior team could sweep them aside with relative ease.

Can Ronaldo and Portugal equal, or go one better than LeBron James and the Cavaliers? It may not seem likely. But if there’s one thing we’ve learned in the four years since the Brazil World Cup, it’s to never bet against Cristiano Ronaldo.

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