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Are Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal a World Cup contender or pretender?

(Getty Images)

Underdogs do not win the World Cup. From the last time the competition was held in Brazil in 1950 until 2010, every World Cup was won by either the host nation or one of the big four: Brazil, Argentina, Italy or Germany. Spain’s victory in 2010 broke the streak, but as defending European champion, Vicente del Bosque’s side was far from a Cinderella. It is likely that this year’s World Cup will be lifted by one of the four favorites: Brazil, Argentina, Spain or Germany.

But it is not entirely certain. Indeed, in that 1950 competition, a Brazil victory was considered a formality. The hosts made it to the final, but after 90 minutes of stout defense and a shocking near-post strike by Alcides Ghiggia, Uruguay secured the championship.

In this series, I will look at a number of teams outside the big four and assess their potential to play the spoiler. I begin with my current favorite underdog pick: Portugal.

The Portuguese did not have an easy time in qualifying. They took only 19 points from a possible 30 and finished second in their qualifying group. Chance matched them up against a tough Sweden side in the playoffs, but Cristiano Ronaldo’s brilliance saw his team through. Based on recent results and qualifying, Portugal looks like perhaps a fun team to watch, but something short of a contender.

Fancy stats will tell you otherwise. Among the European teams that qualified for the World Cup, Portugal has had the second-best expected goals ratio in international matches since 2010.

Portugal’s struggles in qualifying were primarily a function of shot conversion. Ronaldo’s side twice tied Israel in matches where Portugal attempted twice as many shots from the danger zone as the Israelis. In a home tied against Northern Ireland that threw Portugal’s qualification hopes into jeopardy, the Portuguese created three chances inside the six-yard box but only put away one of them. If the results had followed expected goals, Portugal would have won nine and drawn one in the qualifiers.

A few key friendlies have also suggested excellent underlying team quality. Portugal has scheduled aggressively, adding matches against Brazil and the Netherlands to their slate. While neither match was a win, the contest with the Dutch once again showed Portugal dominating the shot chart only to manage a draw on the road. This is from ESPN’s shot chart for the match:

It is certainly possible that the expected-goals method can be mistaken. In particular, there is evidence that top-class strikers consistently outperform their expected goals. But it seems unlikely that Ronaldo’s team cannot convert shots efficiently. The defense, anchored by Real Madrid’s Pepe and protected by midfield laborers Raul Meireles and Miguel Veloso, looks strong and balanced. There are other teams for which I am somewhat skeptical of the result that expected goals shows me, but not for Portugal.

When I look at Portugal’s numbers, I am reminded a bit of Liverpool from the English Premier League. The Reds had among the best expected-goal ratios in the league in 2012-2013 but finished sixth. Their run at the title, which fell just short, was predictable based on the underlying stats. If there is a Liverpool in this World Cup, my best guess is that it would be Portugal.

In the 2012 European Championships, Portugal came closer to eliminating eventual champion Spain than any other team, going down on penalties in the semifinals. Another semifinal performance would not be surprising (though Ronaldo’s injury woes could have an effect). And with a little bit of luck, perhaps Portugal could shock the world from Brazil.

All data provided by Opta unless otherwise noted.

Michael Caley writes for Cartilage Free Captain, where he analyzes fancy soccer statistics and bemoans Tottenham Hotspur’s most recent failures. You can follow him on twitter at @MC_of_A.