In Focus: First-class Citizen Cancelo is key to Portugal’s quest for Qatar
Portugal are involved in a two-way tussle for World Cup qualification — and in-form Manchester City star Joao Cancelo is the man to lead them to Qatar.
The Selecao are battling for top spot in European qualifying Group A but sit a point behind Serbia with a game in hand.
Three points will be crucial when they face Ireland tonight, with Cancelo’s sublime run of form providing grounds for optimism ahead of the clash in Dublin.
Here is why the flying full-back is crucial to Portugal’s hopes of securing safe passage to next year’s winter showpiece.
Few players across Europe are in better form than Cancelo, who put on an attacking masterclass in Saturday’s 2-0 derby defeat of rivals Manchester United.
The versatile 27-year-old’s cross was turned in by Eric Bailly for an own goal to open the scoring before he assisted Bernardo Silva to seal the win.
No player had more shots (four) or efforts on target (two) than Cancelo against the Red Devils — and he was just as influential at the other end of the pitch.
With his four tackles only beaten by countryman Bruno Fernandes (five), this was a complete performance by the one-time Valencia and Juventus star.
Plaudits from the red half of Manchester
Former Manchester United defender Gary Neville was quick to sing Cancelo’s praises after last weekend’s scintillating display.
He said: "He is an athletic machine, he is a brilliant runner, a beautiful runner with the ball and he is a tough kid as well.
"He is strong, he is brave in his defending, he affects the game in defence and in attack, and he is delivering what I thought he would."
Portuguese observers will be hoping that he can bring all those qualities to the Aviva Stadium this evening.
Cancelo’s performances over the course of the current World Cup qualifying campaign have been key to the Selecao securing five wins and a draw from their first six matches.
He has featured at right-back in each of those games, helping Fernando Santos’ men keep three clean sheets and chipping in with two assists.
But it has not always been plain sailing for Portugal — they needed 89th and 96th-minute headers from Cristiano Ronaldo to beat Ireland 2-1 in their last meeting, while a 1-0 victory over Azerbaijan and a 2-2 draw with Serbia were hardly convincing.
There is no doubt that Cancelo’s continued excellence will be needed if his side are to get over the line and reach Qatar.
Leading the European charge
Cancelo’s recent Champions League performances will have heightened expectations on the Iberian Peninsula ahead of this week’s international fixtures.
The Barreiro native has been at his best in continental matches this season, with City running riot in Group A.
Pep Guardiola’s outfit have found the net 15 times in just four games, hitting RB Leipzig for six and netting a combined nine times in two meetings with Club Brugge.
The key man in those encounters has been Cancelo — he has contributed to five goals, scoring two and assisting the other three.
Beyond goals and assists, Cancelo’s statistics from this season paint a picture of a player who is at the very top of his game.
Nobody in the Premier League has had more touches per 90 minutes than the 30-cap international (105.64) and he has been just as effective when distributing the ball to his team-mates.
An average of 67.91 completed passes per 90 places him in the division’s top 10 players, while only four have completed more passes into the final third (23.01).
With similarly impressive defensive numbers — managing an eye-catching 2.39 interceptions per 90 — it is no surprise that hopes are high for another first-class Cancelo display in Dublin tonight.