Portugal will play this year’s World Cup as European Champions, so any dark horse tag has disappeared, but this also means the inferiority complex that has often conditioned the team has been overthrown. The head coach, Fernando Santos, refuses to speak of his team as favourites for the tournament, although, he does suggest the ambition is the same as Euro 2016.
Two years later on from their triumph, Portugal have problems in defence; the centre-backs that featured in France do not offer the same guarantees at the moment and it has been difficult to find alternatives. Santos has even admitted recently that he is was willing to experiment with uncapped players, something he had discarded only a few months earlier, including a call up for Benfica’s Rúben Dias in March, but even that was foiled by injury.
In better news, Portugal now seem to have more offensive options and will leave Éder, the hero of 2016, out of their squad. “I understand that emotional part, but we don’t have to pay him anything. I paid him the way I felt I should pay: I called him and explain why I didn’t choose him”, explained Santos after qualification for Russia 2018 was confirmed. Players such as Bernardo Silva, André Silva or Gelson Martins give more flair in attack, although Santos has not abandoned the structure that led the team to the European title.
The 2016 campaign received some criticism regarding the quality of the game, despite the historic achievement, but Santos continues to snub such concerns: “We’re here to win. And we play with our weapons. That’s what I want. I can’t understand the idea of a team that loses but gives a great game. It makes me confused.”
Santos is expected to stay faithful to a 4-4-2 (with 4-3-3 as the plan B), with Cristiano Ronaldo leading the line alongside André Silva, and the focus on an organised defence with swift counter-attacks.
Probable starting XI (4-4-2)
Rui Patrício; Cédric, Pepe, Bruno Alves, Raphaël Guerreiro; Bernardo Silva, João Moutinho, William Carvalho, João Mário; André Silva, Cristiano Ronaldo
Which player is going to surprise everyone at the Euro 2016?
Bruno Fernandes. He was Portugal’s Under-21 captain, and had already impressed in Serie A, with Udinese and Sampdoria, before exceeded all expectations at Sporting in 2017-18. He may not start the tournament, but will fight for a place, either in the middle or on the wing.
Which player is likely to disappoint?
Fernando Santos will have a hard time choosing Pepe’s partner. Bruno Alves seemed to have won that place in qualifying, but had a difficult season with Rangers, and played just five league games in 2018. At 36 years old, he is hardly in an ideal physical condition.
What is the realistic aim for Portugal at the World Cup 2018 and why?
Although Portugal are European champions, the bar for the World Cup has to be at the usual height: pass the group stage and then think game by game. There are plenty of candidates who have a better chance but Portugal should beat Iran and Morocco to qualify with Spain from Group B, and with Group A opponents (Russia, Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Uruguay) to choose from in the round of 16 – it is realistic for Portugal to aim for the quarter-finals.