Portugal eye play-offs after chaotic campaign

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LISBON - Portugal can calm the frayed nerves of their long-suffering fans by beating lowly Malta on Wednesday to book a place in the World Cup play-offs.

After impressing in recent tournaments, and with the world's most expensive player Cristiano Ronaldo on their side, Portugal started the campaign for South Africa 2010 as favourites to win Group One.

But a 3-2 home defeat by Denmark, two scoreless draws against Sweden and inconsistent displays have deflated belief in Carlos Queiroz's side.

Queiroz was booed when his name was announced before the Hungary match on Saturday but Portugal won 3-0 and, with Sweden losing to leaders Denmark, are again favourites - this time to keep second place by beating Malta.

"We are not there yet. We won this game (on Saturday) and ... that has to be transported to the game in Guimaraes on Wednesday," Queiroz told reporters.

Portugal, who will be without the injured Ronaldo, could hardly have asked for weaker opponents as Malta have one point from nine qualifiers.

"We know they are a weaker team than us. But we have to prove that on the pitch," said right back Jose Bosingwa.

FINISHING TROUBLES

"We know they are very defensive but we will try to score so they open up."

Portugal's poor finishing has let them down in big matches, most notably in the draws against Sweden and the draw in Denmark when they failed to cap an ultra-attacking first-half display with goals.

Queiroz brought in Liedson, Sporting's Brazilian-born striker who recently obtained Portuguese citizenship, after that match. He scored two goals in three games and poses the main threat to Malta's defence.

Ronaldo aggravated an ankle injury against Hungary but the winger, so prolific for Manchester United and then Real Madrid, has not scored once in the qualifiers and many commentators say Portugal play more like a team without him.

Nani is favourite to replace him and Portugal will hope Simao Sabrosa can prove as dangerous as in the Hungary match when he scored twice.

Queiroz's toughest decision may be in midfield, with Pepe back from suspension and competing against Pedro Mendes who responded to a surprise late call-up with a fine performance against Hungary.