Portugal have been granted a stay of execution, but the worry is the respite is only temporary.
Ronaldo could miss out on the main event
Portugal have been granted a stay of execution, but the worry is the respite is only temporary, the reprieve proves illusory and the inquest has been postponed instead of abandoned. In the third minute of added time, the defender Bruno Alves rescued victory in Tirana on Saturday night, preserving their hopes of a summer in South Africa next year. He may have kept Carlos Queiroz in a job for a little longer, but, 11 months into a four-year contract, the former Real Madrid manager remains in a precarious position.
So do his team. Cristiano Ronaldo had provided the starkest admission of their plight. "If we don't beat Albania we won't be at the World Cup," he had said. Courtesy of a 93rd-minute goal, they triumphed 2-1. Yet, having only defeated Malta and Albania, the top seeds are now underdogs. They lie four points behind Hungary and seven adrift of the group leaders, Denmark. "Denmark are now in a good position to finish first," said Quieroz. "We scraped the victory but we now have a better chance of qualifying."
Their chances of second place, and a play-off, rest on a double header against Hungary in the autumn. Alves may prove a lone voice of optimism: "I think the good times are returning and I believe we will be in South Africa," the Porto centre-back said. They ought to be. However Portugal, finalists, semi-finalists and then quarter-finalists in three international tournaments under Luiz Felipe Scolari, have fared rather worse under Queiroz.
Ronaldo can appear among the most potent attackers on the planet in the red of Manchester United. The Portuguese kit is only a slightly different shade, but it has lent him a different look. He is yet to net in the qualifying campaign, and it has been telling. Although Werder Bremen's Hugo Almeida struck in Albania, Portugal's lengthy search for a specialist striker, required since Pauleta entered a decline, continues.
For all the flair on the flanks, they have failed to score three times already, home and away against Sweden and, most damningly, when Albania visited Braga in October. The difficulties of possessing an imbalanced squad are exacerbated by the underachievement of Portugal's younger talents. Ricardo Quaresma and Miguel Veloso were not even in the squad to face Albania, while Nani and Joao Moutinho could only command a place on the bench.
Nor can Queiroz rely on the generation that propelled Portugal to the final of Euro 2004. Injuries have afflicted Ricardo Carvalho, but Deco appears unwanted at Chelsea and Jorge Andrade and Maniche have been released by their respective clubs. Circumstances appear to have conspired against Queiroz. Nevertheless Sir Alex Ferguson's former assistant possesses an unenviable record, including a 6-2 friendly defeat to Brazil.
While his first spell at the helm of the national side ended unhappily, there is a further precedent from the recent past. A hugely gifted side failed to qualify for the 1998 World Cup. Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Paulo Sousa were christened "the golden generation" but they weren't in France. For Ronaldo, Figo's successor as Portugal's talisman, the parallels should be a cause for concern. firstname.lastname@example.org