Two days after leaving Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo will start his World Cup campaign with Portugal and will be looking to put the events of the past week and a half behind him.
Portugal take on Ghana at Stadium 974 on Thursday in what could well be the 37-year-old Ronaldo’s final World Cup – a trophy he has so far eluded throughout his illustrious career.
A successful campaign in Qatar would also see Ronaldo recover from his tumultuous divorce with Manchester United, which ended his second stint at the club on Tuesday.
The striker previously gave Talk TV an explosive interview in which he said he felt betrayed by United and launched a scathing attack on manager Eric ten Hager.
With the World Cup underway, Ronaldo assured his Portuguese team-mates’ attention would not be swayed by the timing of his blockbuster interview.
“The best timing in my life is always my timing,” he told reporters on Monday. “I don’t have to think about what other people think. I talk when I want to. The players have gotten to know me and who I am over the years.”
After announcing his departure from Manchester United, Ronaldo was suspended for two games and fined £50,000 (approximately $60,000) by the English Football Association (FA) for swiping his mobile phone from a spectator earlier this year.
The incident happened after United lost 1-0 to April at Everton. As well as the fine and suspension – which does not apply to the World Cup but will transfer to any new club he joins – the FA warned Ronaldo about his future behaviour.
Portugal are the favorites to take on Ghana, with both sides ranked 52nd in the FIFA rankings.
But pedigree and star power don’t seem to matter in this World Cup, a World Cup in which underdogs excel against stronger opponents.
Saudi Arabia came from behind to beat Argentina 2-1, and Japan did the same against Germany – clear signs that no team should be underestimated and no team should be complacent.
Portugal, who haven’t reached the quarter-finals of a World Cup since 2006, have a point to prove themselves in Qatar and enter the tournament with considerable firepower.
Ronaldo, his old Manchester United team-mate Bruno Fernandes and the likes of Manchester City stars João Cancelo and Bernardo Silva are all likely to feature on Thursday, despite Liverpool striker Diogo Jota being sidelined through injury.
Against them will be a Ghanaian team that is not in good shape but not weak.
Having been knocked out of the Africa Cup of Nations following a disastrous group stage defeat to the Comoros in January, the Black Stars will benefit from the ‘signings’ of striker Inaki Williams and right-back Tariq Lamptey.
Williams switched allegiances from Spain and Lamptey from England earlier this year.
Otto Addo – the only part-time coach at the World Cup – also has star midfielder Mohammad Qudus and seasoned campaigners, including Thomas Partey and the Ayew brothers, Jordan and Andre.
It remains to be seen whether Addo, who primarily works as a scout for German side Borussia Dortmund, can make Garner click.
Also in Group H are Uruguay and South Korea, who will play at the Education City Stadium on Thursday.
Uruguay are title favorites and will benefit from the experience of Edinson Cavani and Luis Suarez. Liverpool striker Darwin Nunez will also be involved in attack, while midfielders Rodrigo Bentancur and Federico Valverde have been in fine form of late.
The good news for South Korea is that star player Son Heung-min has recovered from an eye socket injury and has been training in a protective mask this week.
In Thursday’s other fixtures, pre-tournament favorites Brazil and Serbia will be the last two teams to meet at the Lusail Stadium.
Five-time champions Brazil have arguably the best attacking squad in the tournament, both in terms of quality and depth.
Neymar Jr – like his talismans Ronaldo and Lionel Messi – is looking for his first World Cup trophy and will join Real Madrid’s Vinicius Junior, Barcelona’s Rafinha and Everton’s Richarlison was solidly supported up front together.
But Serbia, who are top of Portugal in their qualifying group, will not be easily beaten, and will be backed by captain Dusan Tadic, Juventus striker Dusan Vlahovic and Fulham striker Aleksander Aleksander. Mitrovic has a lot of scoring ability. However, both Vlahović and Mitrovic were injured before the game.
Serbia, hoping to reach the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time, will likely have to face Switzerland and Cameroon on Thursday to reach the last 16 – barring any disastrous results in Brazil.
But as this World Cup has shown so far, nothing is ruled out.
Switzerland vs. Cameroon – 5 a.m. ET
Uruguay vs. South Korea – 8 a.m. ET
Portugal vs Ghana – 11 a.m. ET
Brazil vs Serbia – 2 p.m. ET
US: Fox Sports
UK: BBC or ITV
Germany: ARD, ZDF, Deutsche Telekom
Canada: Bell Media
South Africa: SABC