Portugal kicked off their 2022 World Cup qualifying campaign with a narrow win over minnows Azerbaijan, as a pattern in their recent games continued.
Despite starting with a very strong team including Cristiano Ronaldo, Bernardo Silva, Pedro Neto and Joao Cancelo, the two teams were only separated by an own goal from Azerbaijan defender Maksim Medvedev in the first half.
Portugal continued to dominate the ball and push forward, but failed to create any real clear cut chances until the final minutes of the game when substitute Joao Felix hit the ball straight at the goalkeeper.
It was the Seleccao’s fourth win in five games and added another clean sheet to Fernando Santos’ record, with the victory marking his 50th in competitive games as Portugal manager.
But there was a pattern displayed in this game that has been fairly worrying for some fans in recent games, that the team seem to play to the level of whatever the opposition is they’re up against.
The recent games against Spain and France saw them eek out close fought 0-0 draws before succumbing to a 1-0 defeat to the world champions in a game that could have gone either way. They were able to beat Sweden in relatively dominant fashion following that, before a 7-0 win over lowly Andorra too.
Against Croatia they seemed to go toe-to-toe and came out 3-2 winners thanks to a last minute Ruben Dias header, in a game they could easily have lost too. They were being comfortably outplayed by the home side before Marko Rog’s second yellow card just moments before the equaliser.
Considering the quality they have running through the squad, they still seem to play at their best when they have the underdog mentality going into games.
Santos’ preference is to set up a solid defence and to let the attacking players perform freely, but with so much depth and quality he should be setting up to take games by the scruff of the neck and dominate them.
The vast majority of the attacking players thrive in possession based teams at club level and are better suited to that type of game, while the fact Ronaldo is allowed to take the evenings off when it comes to defending surely means the overall game is better suited to not having to defend so much.
With a game against Serbia at the weekend and then another qualifier against Albania next midweek, Portugal will need to find a level we all know they’re capable of to win those games against much tougher opposition than Azerbaijan could provide.
During Euro 2016 we saw Portugal win only one game during 90 minutes in the entire competition on their way to winning the competition, then in the 2018 World Cup in Russia they fought to an exciting draw with Spain then beat Morocco 1-0 before being held to a 1-1 draw with Iran. They then failed to really turn up against Uruguay in the knockout rounds, getting eliminated at the first attempt.
If Euro 2020 and the 2022 Qatar World Cup are to be successful with what could be argued as Portugal’s strongest squad ever, they need to start performing to their potential in every game.