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Portugal World Cup Team Guide: Under Fernando Santos, the Seleção still know how to grind out results

Portugal World Cup Team Guide: Under Fernando Santos, the Seleção still know how to grind out results

There’s a cautious optimism about Portugal – but just one defeat in 29 competitive matches tells its own story.

PORTUGAL won their first major trophy two years ago in France and the Seleção will be keen to prove the European Championship triumph was no fluke.

With captain Cristiano Ronaldo continually disproving that his extraordinary powers are on the wane, a talented supporting cast and a coach backed to the hilt by the players, media and fans alike, Portugal travel to Russia optimistic of enjoying another successful tournament.

There are, it cannot be denied, issues tempering the feel-good factor, particularly concerning potential problems in the defence. Moreover, many of Portugal’s key players have had forgettable seasons because of injury or failure to settle at their new clubs, such as Raphael Guerreiro, André Silva and Adrien Silva, although this has to be offset by the emergence of new stars who could jump into the global game’s consciousness at this World Cup such as Bruno Fernandes and Gonçalo Guedes.  

Indeed, a healthy mix of veteran stars who have enjoyed fabulously successful careers and exciting up-and-coming talent means that despite the problems, the mood at home is one of mounting enthusiasm ahead of the big kick-off against Iberian neighbours Spain.

Team strengths: Attacking options

Portugal have an enviable array of options from midfield forwards. At the base of midfield William Carvalho provides a strong platform for the exceptionally skilful Bernardo Silva and João Mário to weave their magic, with two other central midfielders Bruno Fernandes and Manuel Fernandes – players of the season in Portugal and Russia respectively – ready to contribute.

Out wide Gonçalo Guedes and Gelson Martins offer searing pace and excellent dribbling ability, and veteran Ricardo Quaresma remains an invaluable weapon. Since Fernando Santos became manager four years ago, Quaresma has provided more than double the number of assists (15) of any other Portugal player, despite starting most games on the bench.

Up front Cristiano Ronaldo and André Silva have struck up wonderful chemistry, scoring 24 goals between them in the nine qualifying matches they played together.

Team weaknesses: Defensive question marks

Centre-backs Pepe, José Fonte and Bruno Alves, who have a combined age of 105 years, all have their best days behind them, while Benfica youngster Rui Dias is untested at this level. Behind them goalkeeper Rui Patrício has endured a torrid end-of-season at troubled Lisbon club Sporting, which culminated in Portugal’s No.1 unilaterally rescinding his contract. Will the instability affect his performances?

At left-back Portugal will be praying Raphael Guerreiro’s fitness holds up. The Borussia Dortmund defender, so important in the Euro 2016 triumph, made only three appearances for his club in 2018, two as a substitute, and has understandably looked rusty in Portugal’s pre-tournament friendlies.

Star Player

The greatest Portuguese footballer of all time has possibly his last chance, and arguably his best chance, of lifting the world game’s ultimate prize in Russia this year. Cristiano Ronaldo has obliterated all of Portugal’s national team records (149 caps, 81 goals and counting), but his unceasing hunger to further embellish his legacy will ensure the captain is fully motivated and focused.

Unlike several tournaments past, he now has a supporting cast worthy of his extraordinary powers who are able to take the burden of the captain’s shoulders, as witnessed in the European Championship final. Nevertheless, if Portugal are to do something special in Russia Cristiano Ronaldo will undoubtedly be at the heart of it.

The Manager

When Fernando Santos was announced as the new coach of the Seleção following Paulo Bento’s sacking in September 2014 it did not excite Portuguese fans. He was seen as a steady hand and someone who was chosen more because of the lack of available candidates than his own merits. Four years down the line and there is a strong case to make that he is Portugal’s greatest ever manager.

Not only did Santos bring Portugal their first major trophy after a history of near misses; he has also expertly overseen a smooth transition, ushering a fabulously talented generation first into the squad and then into the team, selecting players on merit rather than reputation. A record of just one defeat in 29 competitive matches tells its own story. Santos has the full backing of the players, the media and the fans and has unequivocally proven he was the right man for the job.

How far can they go?

When the draw was made the general consensus was that Spain and Portugal would occupy the top two positions without much bother. But upon closer inspection it can be argued that Group B is among the toughest sections at World Cup 2018.

Portugal coach Fernando Santos certainly thinks so, saying, “We will play against the best team from Africa and the best team from Asia.” Morocco especially, with an array of talented players many of whom are representing top European clubs, will feel they have a chance of qualifying.

That said, Portugal have been pragmatic and clinical under Santos, grinding out the results they need even when not playing well, and their quality should see them squeeze through. The first knockout round is likely to bring a negotiable match-up against Russia, Uruguay or Egypt, but a quarter-final versus France or Argentina will likely be a bridge too far.






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Tom Kundert
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