Just before Christmas last year, Portugal received the best present Santa could give. In the town of Funchal, on the island of Madeira, the CR7 Museum was born—a museum of Cristiano Ronaldo, for Cristiano Ronaldo, and by Cristiano Ronaldo. Fans from all over the world can now make the pilgrimage to pay their respects to Real Madrid’s star, take pictures with wax figures of him, and marvel at his many trophies. If there’s one trophy Cristiano Ronaldo is missing though, it’s a World Cup medal. When Portugal kick off their World Cup 2014 campaign against Germany on Monday, all eyes will be on him, their captain, holder of the Ballon d’Or, officially anointed the world’s best player. There’s the sense that Cristiano Ronaldo is Portugal, and Portugal is Cristiano Ronaldo.
Germany are the antithesis to this ethos. One of the tournament favorites, Joachim Löw’s side has no outright stars. Sure, avid soccer fans know the likes of Bastian Schweinsteiger, Philipp Lahm, and Mesut Özil, but none of them are household names the way Ronaldo or Lionel Messi or even Zlatan Ibrahimovic are. For many, Germany vs. Portugal pits the Great Team against the Great Player. But are Germany really a great team? Is Portugal really the Cristiano Ronaldo show?
The simple answer is: No.
Germany are a team of great players, but whether they can become a great team remains to be seen. Though Cristiano Ronaldo is undoubtedly Portugal’s star, he is surrounded by a talented team that were cruelly denied Euro 2012 glory. Pepe is one of the game’s great cartoon villains, but his defensive prowess is undeniable, while Fabio Coentrao, Nani, Joao Moutinho, and Raul Meireles are all quality players who would start in almost any side. Ronaldo might be the greatest player in the world, but he couldn’t do it alone. Lucky for him, his supporting cast is chock full of fantastic talents from some of the biggest teams in Europe.
For Germany, this World Cup was supposed to be “the one.” Having finished third in the last two World Cups with young teams full of promise, it is now time for that promise to be fulfilled. Confidence was high all season long, but since then they’ve lost the Bundesliga’s player of the season, Marco Reus, to injury. Other automatic starters, like Schweinsteiger, Lahm, and Sami Khedira, have been struggling to return from injury, and the team as a whole hasn’t looked their best in friendlies. Suddenly the tournament favorites seem vulnerable.
Part of their problem is their lack of strikers. While South America seems to have great strikers crawling out of the woodwork, Germany has only one, Miroslav Klose, and he’s 36 years old. Klose is not to be underestimated; he’s scored 14 goals in 19 matches in the World Cup, and is two goals away from setting the all-time record for most World Cup goals by a single player. He’s been injured most of the year, though, and Germany may play one of their many midfielders as a false nine up front instead. Though they have many options here, they haven’t looked all that convincing so far in that formation, and if Löw does decide to make that gamble Portugal’s tough defense will be a stern test.
Germany: Neuer; Boateng, Hummels, Mertesacker, Höwedes; Schweinsteiger, Lahm, Kroos; Özil, Müller, Podolski
Portugal: Patricio; Pereira, Alves, Pepe, Coentrao; Carvalho; Nani, Moutinho, Meireles, Ronaldo; Postiga
Key Battle: Toni Kroos vs. Joao Moutinho
All eyes will be on Ronaldo's assault on the German defense, but it is the battle for midfield that will determine this match. Toni Kroos, a player who seems to sleepwalk his way to sublime play, must impose himself if Germany are to win. The Bayern Munich midfielder is undeniably talented—his teachers made him play without shoes in school to give the other kids a chance—but it’s always been a question of work ethic. He will take on Joao Moutinho, a player with something to prove. A key player for Portugal in the last two Euros, he’s making his World Cup debut late, at age 27, which will make him even hungrier to make a mark on the game. Whoever wins this duel will play a key role in deciding which side takes home the three points.
Elaine Teng is the managing editor of The New Republic.