Tom Kundert introduces the new batch of Iberian brilliance aiming to finally succeed Figo, Costa & Co...
For followers of Portuguese football, the Esperanças' demolition of Germany wasn't a huge surprise. It was simply confirmation that the nation is on the cusp of another golden generation to match the one that won two Youth World Cups in 1989 and 1991, led by Luís Figo and Rui Costa.
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Another of the undisputed world-class talents produced by the small Iberian country since then, Cristiano Ronaldo, has had the misfortune to hit the peak of his career between two generations of fabulously gifted footballers who could have given him the support more befitting of his extraordinary abilities.
So what of this new set of future stars? Is there another Figo, Costa or Ronaldo among them? Meet Portugal’s likely U21 champions player by player. You may well be hearing a whole lot more of them in the not-too-distant future...
José Sá (goalkeeper, C.S. Marítimo)
When Germany goalkeeper Marc-André ter Stegen sportingly embraced Sá at the end of the 5-0 thrashing Portugal handed out to the Germans, it was remarkable to think that the afternoon’s victor had spent the season fighting a losing battle against relegation from Portugal’s second tier, while Ter Stegen had just weeks earlier completed a Champions League, La Liga and Copa del Rey treble. It's not just Sá’s hirsute appearance that makes him stand out. He was arguably Portugal’s top performer in the group stage, making a series of stunning saves while calmly and confidently dominating his box, leading to calls for him to be fast-tracked into the senior side right away.
Ricardo Esgaio (right-back, Sporting)
Esgaio is a full-back with a natural inclination to bomb forward, which is hardly surprising given he also played as a right midfielder and right winger for Sporting B, for whom he scored over 30 goals at a ratio of one every two games. Following the sale of Sporting right-back Cedric Soares to Southampton, Esgaio is expected to cement his place as a first-choice starter in Sporting’s back four this coming season.
Raphael Guerreiro (left-back, Lorient)
Born in France to a Portuguese father and French mother, Guerreiro came into the tournament of the back of a magnificent season. A star player at Ligue 1 outfit Lorient, Guerreiro made a sparkling debut for the full Portugal side in November in a Euro 2016 qualifier against Armenia, then scored the winning goal in a friendly against Argentina a few days later (above).
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Another full-back who loves to roam forward and does so to great effect. PSG have been linked with a move for him this month, after Arsenal were mooted in January.
Paulo Oliveira (centre-back, Sporting)
The Sporting centre-back has enjoyed a faultless tournament, lending the Portuguese defence a rock solid foundation with his dominance in the air, perfect positioning and highly tuned powers of anticipation. Having played five times in last season's Champions League, he's already tasted football on the biggest stage.
Tiago Ilori (centre-back, Liverpool)
The tall Liverpool-owned defender was performing commendably before his tournament was disrupted by injury problems. Born and raised in Hampstead, London, before his family relocated to the Algarve, a lot was expected of Ilori when he broke into the Sporting first team at just 18 years of age, and he was soon snapped up by Liverpool. His subsequent development has been unspectacular, but he could yet make an impact on Merseyside.
William Carvalho (midfielder, Sporting)
Carvalho is an absurdly strong defensive midfielder and a full Portugal international who has shown he is far too good for this level, dominating the middle of the pitch practically every minute of every game in the tournament. (Our GIF above illustrates his exquisite passing abilities.) Rumours of an exit to Arsenal have been ongoing for over a year, and his stupendous displays in the Czech Republic only confirm that a move to one of Europe’s biggest clubs is a question of when, not if.
João Mário (midfielder, Sporting)
Endowed with tremendous technique and innate football intelligence, the Sporting midfielder nailed down his place in the Lisbon club’s midfield last season and has already earned a handful of caps for the senior national side. He was the match-winner against England in the group stage.
Bernardo Silva (midfielder, Monaco)
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Bernardo Silva has not only been Portugal’s best player, he is widely acknowledged as the most accomplished footballer in the whole tournament. The Monaco midfielder is virtually impossible to dispossess thanks to his wonderful control and flawless technique, and always seems to make right decisions even when having to do so in an instant. He also works hard for a flair player, but it's his exceptional vision and creativity that truly sets him apart. The last Portuguese player to win MVP at an U21 European Championship was Figo 21 years ago, and everything Silva has done in his career thus far suggests he is set for similar heights.
Sérgio Oliveira (midfielder, Porto)
Playing alongside the three big-name midfielders described above, all of whom are undisputed starters at their Champions League-playing clubs, the highest praise you can afford Oliveira is that he has looked every bit as capable as the others. Neatly knitting together play between the defensive and attacking sectors of the team, he has transposed his dynamic club form seamlessly into the international arena. Porto have duly recalled him from his loan spell at Paços de Ferreira and it will be a surprise if he's not turning out regularly for the Dragons next season.
Ricardo Pereira (forward, Porto)
The skilful, pacey and courageous winger has interpreted his mobile wide man/centre-forward role to perfection, causing untold problems for opposition defences with his trickery and link-up play. All the more remarkable given that he's used as a full-back at his club side, Porto.
Ivan Cavaleiro (forward, Benfica)
The Benfica-owned forward has enjoyed a terrific tournament, his bullish, non-stop running and physical approach well suited to manager Rui Jorge’s strikerless formation. His breathtaking goal in the semi-final against Germany will only have added to his value, with Monaco expected to cough up the €15m asking price for him in the coming weeks.
Iuri Medeiros: A feisty, nippy wide player blessed with the most cultured of left foots, the Azores-born 20-year-old looks like yet another highly promising product from Sporting’s non-stop production line of high-quality wingers.
Gonçalo Paciência: A rarity among talented young Portuguese footballers in that he's an out-and-out striker who looks the business. Exhibit one: his clinically taken goal against Sweden in Portugal’s final group match.
Carlos Mané: The winger-cum-attacking midfielder has pace to burn and is another one of Sporting’s bright hopes for the future, having clocked up 51 games and 11 goals for the Lisbon giants despite only recently turning 21.
Tobias Figueiredo: Yet another Sporting product, the fearsome centre-back has stepped in ably for Tiago Ilori. An old-fashioned 'no prisoners taken' central defender and a monster in the air.