Portugal are in good shape heading into Euro 2016.
After appointing Fernando Santos in September 2014, A Seleccao reeled off seven straight wins in qualifying to book their place in France on the back of a national record run of consecutive victories in competitive matches. Their favourable group draw has left supporters optimistic that record can be extended into double figures. Pragmatist Santos has also guided his team to victories over Argentina and Italy, after Portugal had gone 40 years without beating either.
With the tournament’s best player in their ranks, plus a healthy mix of experienced campaigners and bright new talent (including 18-year-old Renato Sanches), hopes are high that Portugal can continue their impressive Euros record. In six appearances, they have reached the semi-finals on four occasions, going on to contest the final on home turf in 2004, and have never failed to successfully negotiate the group phase.
That’s the good news. The bad news is that Portugal’s recurrent problem of having no high-quality striker is again evident. Eder may lead the line, but one goal in 23 Portugal appearances and a grand total of zero for Swansea this season before joining Lille on loan is not a record that will have opposition defenders quaking in their boots.
A creaking backline is also a cause for concern – Portugal’s four likely centre-backs at Euro 2016 will be 34, 33, 32 and 38 – although Santos has drilled the team into defending as a unit.
Spain famously one-nilled their way to success at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. Santos achieved commendable results as Greece boss with a similar approach, and with one obvious exception, this Portugal side are not exactly packed with potent goal threats.
Expect them to adopt a balanced and prudent strategy rather than anything approaching barnstorming attack-at-will football. However, that doesn’t make Portugal any less dangerous.
Lesson from qualifying
Keep it tight. After a shock 1-0 home defeat to Albania in the opening qualifier, a result that cost previous boss Paulo Bento his job, Portugal clocked up seven straight wins to finish seven points clear at the top of Group I, but results were better than performances. All seven wins were by a single-goal margin, and they scored only 11 goals in their eight games. This Portugal team is solid rather than spectacular.
Santos achieved minor miracles over four years with Greece, not only qualifying for Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup but reaching the knockouts both times. He did so thanks to a solid defence, and he has implemented the same template with his home country. This Portugal team is tough to break down – but it comes at a cost, with few goals at the other end. They have to rely on moments of magic to score. Still, with an array of talented young midfielders emerging and Ronaldo continuing to smash goal records left, right and centre, the potential is there to provide that spark.
Unless Ronaldo is deployed upfront, which runs the risk of isolating him, Eder is likely to get the nod as Portugal’s No.9. Although the 28-year-old is a decent targetman and hold-up player, he’s a woeful finisher. Portugal could also be vulnerable if attacked at pace through the middle, given their geriatric central defenders.
Most likely to...
Sport the tournament’s most shocking hairstyle, courtesy of Ricardo Quaresma.
Least likely to...
Have an attacking free-kick taken by any player whose name doesn’t start with ‘Cristiano’ and end with ‘Ronaldo’.
What they hope will happen
Ronaldo says one of his remaining targets in football is to lift a trophy with his country. A new generation of midfielders may at last provide a decent enough supporting cast to allow him to realise that dream.
What will happen
A last-four finish would be considered a good tournament. Last eight is more likely.
Key player - Cristiano Ronaldo
Gone are the days when CR7 was accused of not doing it in a Portugal shirt. He has smashed the national team’s all-time goalscoring record and in France will overtake Luis Figo to become the most capped player in Portugal’s long history.
Manager - Fernando Santos
Wearer of a trademark scowl, the 61-year-old coached all of Portugal’s big three (Porto, Benfica and Sporting) before embarking on a successful spell with Greece, losing just six of 49 matches in charge.
Q&A - Jose Fonte
What are Portugal’s aims for the tournament?
We have the best player in the world in Cristiano Ronaldo, so we want to go and win. We have a strong team, a fantastic manager and the full support of the nation. I think we’re very well organised, we’re a very close-knit squad and we have players who are extremely dangerous offensively.
How important will Cristiano Ronaldo be to your chances?
He’s a leader for us, and what he has achieved for so many years is phenomenal. He hasso much quality and pace, and he’s also an excellent character in the dressing room. He brings lots of big-match experience.
How much are you looking forward to your first senior tournament with Portugal? Do you have ambitions to start after playing in the last qualifying match?
Of course I’d love to start, but that’s up to the manager. The Euros have been something I’ve been working hard towards and hopefully I will get called up. It would be fantastic for me to represent my country at a major tournament – a real standout moment in my career. Looking back, it’s been an amazing journey from playing in League One to the possibility of playing at the Euros, but I’ve improved massively during that time. I feel I’m ready.
You’ve been drawn with Austria, Iceland and Hungary. Was that as good a group as you could hope for?
Every group will be extremely difficult. You’re facing teams who have performed to a very high level during qualifying. We know we will face three very tricky opponents.
If Portugal and England both win their groups, there’s a chance the two countries could meet in the last eight. Would you relish that?
If you get to the latter stages they are all big games, and England would be no exception – especially since I’ve played in the country for many years. But in order to get there we have to get the results in the group stage first, and that’s what we need to concentrate on.
Fixtures and results
June 15, Iceland - Saint-Etienne, 3am
June 19, Austria - Paris, 3am
June 22, Hungary - Lyon, Midnight
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Group I winners
vs Albania (H) 0-1
vs Denmark (A) 1-0
vs Armenia (H) 1-0
vs Serbia (H) 2-1
vs Armenia (A) 3-2
vs Albania (A) 1-0
vs Denmark (H) 1-0
vs Serbia (A) 2-1
EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP RECORD
Words Tom Kundert; Interview Chris Flanagan
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