SOCHI, Russian Federation, Jun 23 – Portugal are set to rest Cristiano Ronaldo for Saturday’s clash against New Zealand as the Euro 2016 winners look to clinch their place in next week’s Confederations Cup semi-finals.
Ronaldo brushed off allegations of tax evasion in Spain with man-of-the-match performances in the 2-2 draw with Mexico and 1-0 victory over hosts Russia, when he scored the winner.
Fernando Santos is expected to rotate his squad, leaving out the likes of Ronaldo against the already-eliminated Kiwis.
New AC Milan signing Andre Silva should lead Portugal’s attack in Saint Petersburg, where Portugal will be the heavy favourites.
“We have to manage the players and there will be rotation based on how the players are feeling, but it’s easy when you have a group you trust,” said Santos.
“I’m not going to say whether Ronaldo will play or not, because I don’t want our opponents to know.
“New Zealand gave Mexico a few problems and we will have to be on our toes,” he added. The All Whites lost 2-1 to Mexico on Wednesday despite having led at half-time.
Santos said left-back Raphael Guerreiro is ruled out with a bruised foot, and not a fractured leg, as was first thought after Wednesday’s narrow win over Russia.
“He told us he could have a small fracture, fortunately it is not as serious an injury, but he won’t play tomorrow,” said Santos.
Things remain tight in Group A before Saturday’s final round.
Mexico are top, level with Portugal on four points but ahead by virtue of having scored one more goal, and face Russia, who are just a point behind in third.
New Zealand will have to settle for the chance to play the role of spoiler after losing both their games so far.
The Kiwis will breathe a slight sigh of relief if Ronaldo is rested, with the Real Madrid star netting 15 times in his last nine matches for club and country.
“Even if you take Ronaldo out of the team, you still have world-class players like (Ricardo) Quaresma and Nani, we have a game plan and we won’t be overawed,” said coach Anthony Hudson.
“The Portuguese probably don’t want to be playing New Zealand right now.”
– ‘Brave’ –
Like he did before the Mexico game, Hudson called on the Kiwis to be “brave” against the European champions.
This will be the first senior meeting between Portugal, ranked eighth in the world, and New Zealand, who are 95th — sandwiched between Guatemala and Madagascar.
The Kiwis, appearing at the Confederations Cup for the fourth time, are still hunting their first win in the tournament after just one draw and 10 defeats.
They gave the Mexicans a scare in Sochi with Leeds striker Chris Wood giving New Zealand a shock first-half lead.
It was their first goal in 555 minutes of Confederations Cup football, but Mexico’s Raul Jimenez and Oribe Peralta struck in the second half as the Kiwis faded.
“We took a great side all the way against Mexico and we can do that against Portugal,” said Wood.
“If we play like we did the other night, I have all the confidence in the world.”
Russia need to beat Mexico in Kazan to avoid their prospects hinging on a Portugal loss, while a point would be enough for the Mexicans to advance.
After the draw with Portugal, Mexico coach Juan Carlos Osorio made eight changes against New Zealand, a plan that initially backfired before his side recovered after the break.
Star striker Javier Hernandez, left out against New Zealand, is expected to start while Osorio must replace the injured Carlos Salcedo and Hector Moreno in defence.
“We are extremely confident,” said Osorio.
“For us it was very important to get three points against New Zealand and now against the hosts we feel that we have a great chance.”
Russia coach Stanislav Cherchesov said he will decide his starting line-up after training with an electric atmosphere expected for the national team’s first game at the Kazan Arena.