“We are not favourites but we believe we can win Euro 2016.” It’s a line Portugal coach Fernando Santos has repeated umpteen times since taking charge in September 2014.
In addition to a record run of competitive victories – seven and counting – it’s the sudden glut of fabulously talented midfielders that has many fans believing these are not just empty words. Even Cristiano Ronaldo is excited about his new team-mates; as the Portugal captain enthused earlier this year, “Since I’ve been playing for the national team there have never been so many high-quality players available.”
Can Santos strike a balance between youth and experience?
Whereas many of the exciting new generation will feature heavily (Joao Mario, Danilo and Andre Gomes are good bets to make the starting XI), the average age of Portugal’s likely back four will be 34 years old.
So far Santos has intelligently transfused new blood into the team while refusing to discard veterans with years of experience at the very top of the game. A case in point is Ricardo Carvalho, now 38. The centre-back’s international career seemed to be over after he spectacularly fell out with previous Portugal coach Paulo Bento, but Santos recalled him and the former Chelsea and Real Madrid defender hasn’t put a foot wrong.
The trick will be to harness the experience of Carvalho, Pepe, Joao Moutinho and Ronaldo to give a solid platform, so the brilliant youngsters around them can perform as they have done for their club sides this season. Should Santos strike the right blend, Portugal – for the first time in years – will not just be ‘Ronaldo + 10’.
What they’ve learned
Given Portugal’s lack of a quality centre-forward and the fact that Ronaldo will certainly be targeted for special treatment by opponents, it’s vital the team takes its chances and keeps things tight at the back.
It was a formula that worked well in qualifying. Portugal may have won Group I at a canter in terms of points, but every one of their seven victories was by a single-goal margin.
This Portugal team is not free-scoring, but may have just enough art and trickery to open up a mean defence. Spain one-nilled their way to winning the 2010 World Cup. Nobody in Portugal would complain if they did something similar.
Fuel for the engine
An exceptionally talented generation of midfielders makes this an exciting time to be a Portugal supporter. Their engine room will be packed with energy, strength and stamina – attributes painfully missing at the World Cup in Brazil – while losing none of the quintessentially slick passing ability and technical proficiency so characteristic of Portuguese footballers.
Porto’s Danilo should get the nod for the holding role, with Sporting’s exciting Joao Mario likely to start in front of him, alongside Moutinho. Coach Santos has hinted he is leaning towards a 4-4-2 formation instead of Portugal’s traditional 4-3-3, but the latter feels almost like an obligation given the wealth of central midfielders at his disposal – Adrien Silva, Andre Gomes, William Carvalho and even 18-year-old sensation Renato Sanches (joining Bayern Munich after the Euros) are also pushing to start.
Should Portugal progress deep into the tournament, Santos may pair Danilo and William Carvalho against powerful opponents to provide a formidable protective wall in front of the defence.
As has long been the case, Portugal won’t have a reliable centre-forward in France. In fact, Eder is the only recognised striker in the squad. Despite a positive end-of-season loan at Lille – a move now made permanent – his record of one goal in 23 internationals speaks volumes about his goal threat.
Ronaldo has been used in the No.9 role on several occasions, but it makes little sense to move the best player at the tournament out of his best position. Past experience has shown that when Ronaldo is alone up top it’s far easier for the opposition to shut him out of the game.
A mobile front two or three comprising Ronaldo and one or both of Nani or Braga’s Rafa, constantly interchanging positions and drifting between the box and the flanks, has been Santos’ solution. In theory it’s an interesting one, but in practice it’s yet to properly click.
Sporting midfielder Joao Mario looked a polished performer from the moment he became a first-team regular for the Lisbon giants two years ago, aged just 21.
He’s only improved, and has been a joy to behold this season, gliding gracefully around the pitch, making himself available for the ball but never dwelling on it, dictating the game’s momentum, playing defence-splitting balls or simply making sure his team keep possession.
Most impressive of all is his football brain – he always seems to make the right decision, even in frenetic matches. His work rate and temperament lend weight to the feeling that the 23-year-old is heading to the very top of the game.
Having agonisingly missed out on the championship this season despite accumulating a club record number of points, Sporting are desperate to keep hold of him. More outstanding displays in France, though, and Europe’s biggest clubs may make an offer they – and he – cannot refuse.
Santos is one of the few managers to have coached all three of Portugal’s major clubs (Porto, Benfica and Sporting), but arguably his greatest achievements came as Greece boss. He guided them to Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup, unexpectedly reaching the knockouts on both occasions.
His Greece teams were built on a solid defence and he has brought the same philosophy to his home country, with some success. He led Portugal to seven straight wins in qualifying and also oversaw 1-0 friendly victories against Argentina and Italy. Portugal hadn’t beaten either nation in the previous 40 years.