So here it is; the playoff.
Portugal face off against Bosnia-Herzegovina and are massive favourites, but the reality may not be as the bookies have predicted. Firstly Portugal are without talisman and "greatest player in the world"™ Cristiano Ronaldo. Secondly they are playing a side who scored 25 goals in Qualifying, in a group containing Spain.
How did things become so complicated for the Lusitanos? They were drawn in a group containing both Sweden and Denmark, teams notorious for their organised and unadventurous football. There was also a tricky tie with Hungry to negotiate (although a far cry from the unbeaten Magnificent Magyars of the early 50s), and the compulsory whipping boys; Albania and Malta.
There is never one answer to any footballing question, and this case is no different. There can be though, many hypotheses; Queiros and his management, the selection policy, the pressure on Ronaldo to reproduce his domestic form, and the desire of the team. There is one thing above all else which seems to be the problem; goals.
Since Pauleta's retirement from international football Portugal have failed to replace his goals. Pauleta has the distinction of being Portugal's top goal scorer, usurping the great Eusebio late in his career. As a player he divided opinion in Portugal; some considered him to be a superb striker as proven by his record in Ligue 1 for PSG, others on the other hand thought of him as average, scoring goals against the likes of Lichtenstein yet not against tougher opponents like France. The truth is somewhere in between, yet what remains obvious is that when Portugal needed him he often cropped up and put the ball in the net.
In the 2010 qualifying, Portugal's top scorer was Simao with 4 goals. The top scoring striker was Hugo Almeida, with 2 goals. 2 goals. To put that in some sort of perspective, Wayne Rooney scored 9, but perhaps more importantly Edin Dzeko also scored 9.
Not since 1998 have Portugal failed to qualify for a major tournament, and costly 0-0 draws in away games to Armenia and Northern Ireland decided their fate. Once again, the lack of goals could prove their downfall.
Against Bosnia-Herzegovina, Portugal face Dzeko, Misimovic and Muslimovic with a combined firepower of 18 goals. That's 1 more goal than Portugal scored in their entire qualifying period.
Fortunately for Portugal, their opponents also conceded 13 goals. This record is what will set these teams apart, Portugal's defence is far superior only conceding 5. Pepe and Carvalho are two of the best centrebacks in world football, plying their trades at 2 of the greatest clubs in Europe and should be more than a match for Dzeko and co. Former FC Porto defender Ricardo Costa has been drafted in, a suprise inclusion to many, the reasoning may be more immediate; he plays at Wolfsburg together with both Dzeko and Misimovic.
In the midfield both Tiago and Raul Meireles are expected to start, neither a stranger to the big game environment. On the wings Querios is expected to name Nani and Simao to partner the creative spark of Deco. Finally the fulcrum; Liedson.
A controversial inclusion, Liedson's call up to the national side has caused arguments over coffee in practically every counter in the country. Some (admittedly many Sporting fans) see his inclusion as an obvious step, as his domestic form is stunning; the 31 year old has scored 146 in 250 games. On the reverse there are those who regard the call up of a third Brazilian born as one step too far. There is a very real worry that these naturalisations are diluting the desire and commitment of the national side, after all does a Brazilian really care how well Portugal do, or is he satisfying his own ego?
The lack of captain and superstar Ronaldo will be felt very keenly, but Portugal have enough quality to see off the challengers. They will depend on their defence more than ever as it will be tested thoroughly. Should they achieve a good result at home in Lisbon (and importantly keep a clean sheet) then they have a very real chance to show what they're worth in South Africa.