At the start of the international break this month, Portugal were in pole position to have their qualification status for Qatar 2022 all wrapped up.
They travelled to face the Republic of Ireland in a bit of a dead rubber game, because regardless of the result it was the final game against Serbia on Sunday night that mattered.
A 0-0 draw with Ireland changed nothing. Portugal needed a draw in the home game against Serbia to secure top spot on goal difference, while a victory would leave no question as to whether they deserved it or not.
The pre-game press conference once again led to Fernando Santos making a promise to Portugal fans.
“Tomorrow, we will qualify for the World Cup.”
They didn’t. Despite a goal from Renato Sanches in the second minute that gave them the lead, Portugal were poor throughout. Serbia equalised in the first half thanks to Dusan Tadic, whose strike took a slight deflection off Danilo and meant Rui Patricio could only deflect the ball into his own net.
Portugal barely created any chances in the game, with Cristiano Ronaldo failing to register a single shot on target in the game for the first time in the entire qualifying campaign.
But in the 93rd minute, Aleksandar Mitrovic slammed a header in at the near post to book Serbia’s ticket to Qatar and condemn Portugal to a play-off that makes their participation at the World Cup far from certain.
Santos has been in charge of Portugal since September 2014, when he took over from Carlos Quieroz after a poor start to their World Cup qualifying campaign.
The former Greece manager saved that campaign and led them in that World Cup, before then winning Euro 2016. He then led the team into the 2018 World Cup, where as European champions they really disappointed by crashing out in the round of 16 to Uruguay.
That should’ve been the trigger for Santos to depart, but instead Portugal opted to keep him and gave him the extra credit of winning Euro 2016. He responded by winning the first ever version of the UEFA Nations League the following year, defeating Holland in the final.
Since then however, it’s not been great going. Portugal struggled at Euro 2020 to a late win over Hungary in the opening group game before a defeat to Germany and a draw with France put them through as a best third-placed team. They were then beaten by Belgium, once again failing to really create much going forward.
Now with this latest failure, it seems like his time as being the right man for the job is probably over.
With the squad at his disposal, he is a totally wrong fit for the team. Santos is constantly putting defence first when trying to sort a squad out, despite the abundance of attacking talent he has available to him.
The first thought of the manager is always not to lose rather than to win, which fitted well with expectations when he first took over but not so much anymore.
This is a squad that is more than capable of going toe-to-toe with the best teams in the world with a bit of tactical invention and good structure.
With the likes of Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota and Ronaldo among the ranks then this is a team very capable of scoring goals.
With a four month period now between the failure and the play-offs in March, there is a chance to make a change now and bring in a more attack-minded coach like Leonardo Jardim to get the best out of this upcoming generation of attacking talent.
Santos is on borrowed time with Portugal and they have a chance to make it right before they miss out on a World Cup competition for the first time since 2002.
With a population as little as ten million, it is fair to say Portugal has done pretty well for themselves as a footballing powerhouse. Never ones to be taken lightly in international competition, their respect is a direct result of the constant stream of talent that, to this day, shows no sign of drying up.
From the stardust sprinkled by Eusebio and Paulo Futre, right through to the golden years of Luis Figo, Rui Costa and the unprecedented Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s not short of generational talent.
Which begs the question, if we were to call on the representation of one player to a single attribute, what would the perfect Portuguese player look like?
Brain Bruno Fernandes
Manchester United’s man of the moment took a unique route to the top, taking in the Italian way of playing the game before his 2016 move back game with Sporting.
A true sponge, tactically, his rich knowledge of the game shows in the way he commands his team on the pitch, with or without the captain’s armband and, despite his many technical qualities, it’s his mentality that promises to take him and his teammates right to the very top. A true footballing brain on his shoulders.
Heading Ability Cristiano Ronaldo
There’s no doubting the magnitude of the phenom we have in our hands here, fit to top almost every category available in this piece. Since few will be able dispute the overwhelming superiority Cristiano Ronaldo holds over others in the air, this category is his to don.
A lethal finisher with his head, even at a very young age, his favourable height, cunning anticipation and outrageous leap make him a force to be reckoned with inside the box. Truly superhuman.
Physique André Silva
Undoubtedly in lofty company, here, the ex-FC Porto and A.C. Milan striker falls short of the talent and consistency possessed by many throughout this list, which is a shame given the threat he poses.
Somewhat likened to Ronaldo, physically, André Silva’s tall, strong and elegant frame equips him to be in the mould of a true modern-day athlete – the complete striker. All that’s really missing for the young frontman is a little more consistency before he starts looking like the fearsome prospect that once took him to the San Siro.
Hands Rui Patrício
Two names spring to mind where goalkeeping’s concerned – that of UEFA Champions League winner Vitor Baía, a mainstay in the Portugal national team in his day, and Rui Patricio, central to his nation’s Euro 2016 success in France, against the hosts.
With a blunder or two in his game, Baía loses out here to Rui Patricio, who’s matured brilliantly over the years and offers Wolverhampton Wanderers and Portugal with the adequate security required to compete.
Tackling Ricardo Carvalho
Barely in the six foot region, there’s plenty to admire about Ricardo Carvalho’s game in a world dominated by bulkier, far more imposing centre-backs and strikers alike.
Excelling at the very highest level with FC Porto, Chelsea and Real Madrid, Carvalho’s positioning, anticipation and composure often saw him outsmart his competitors in the tackle, adding greater comfort to the backline wherever he went.
Agility João Moutinho
Great things were expected of João Moutinho when he first broke through at Sporting in 2004 and, meanwhile, it’s fair to say he hasn’t quite lived up to the promise set out, the midfielder’s career isn’t one to frown at either.
Still competing in the Premier League at the age of 34, his small stature aids his agility that, throughout the years, has seen the creative quantity mature into a combative source, relentlessly zipping across the midfields.
Passing Manuel Rui Costa
Another in a class of his own, capable of taking a handful of categories for himself, Rui Costa, formerly referred to as ‘the Maestro,’ comes in to claim what his nickname implies – orchestrating play.
The ex-Fiorentina and A.C. Milan star had the innate ability to play at his own pace, capable of short bursts through the midfield with the ball glued at his feet, and when he was not practically passing the ball into the net, such was his accuracy, Rui Costa was feeding his star-studded forward lines with the utmost precision expected of a number ten.
First Touch Deco
One many would consider a rare breed, Deco wasn’t quick, nor strong, but he’d always outwit his opposition with otherworldly vision and guile, best seen in his FC Porto years.
An immaculate first touch set up the Brazilian-born Portugal international for success, enabling him to find the time and space his slight body and creative attributes required. Deco was so good, in fact, there were times he didn’t even need to touch the ball, feigning cutely and giving his opponents the illusion he could control things with his mind.
Although he may not be as quick as a certain Portuguese Old Trafford favourite, Nani, with admirers of his own during his time in the north-west, wasn’t far behind when it came to turning on the jets.
Direct, tricky and equally objective, the former Manchester United number 17 was a real threat off the flanks in his pomp, owing much of that to his unforgiving acceleration.
Dribbling Paulo Futre
Dubbed as Europe’s response to Diego Maradona, the long-haired Atlético Madrid legend was unstoppable in full flow, toying with any defender who dared to believe he may be dispossessed.
Blessed with control, veiled pace and a protective tenacity that kept his detractors at bay, the Maradona comparisons were always very evident for a winger who simply refused to be tackled.
Skills Ricardo Quaresma
Nobody embodies street football, where imagination, joy and exhilaration is king, quite like Ricardo Quaresma. Despite never delivering the career his abundant talent deserved, the former Porto and Besiktas star never lost sight of what made him a firm favourite in everyone’s hearts – his commitment to leave all in awe with wizardry.
The constant showboating, the trademarked ‘Trivela’ – Quaresma is your one and only stop for mind-boggling trickery on this side of the Atlantic Ocean.
Crossing Luís Figo
Luís Figo was many things, from an elite dribbler, to a complete visionary in the final third. One of his more underrated qualities was his ability to cause danger from the flanks, via his delivery. Not his most outstanding quality, undoubtedly, but brilliantly consistent.
Right Foot Eusebio
The perfect Portuguese player would be complete without the great Eusebio, conveying an enormity that is, even in the presence of Ronaldo and co., fondly remembered today.
We’ll leave the striker in his natural habitat, here, borrowing his venomous and ferocious right foot that often left goalkeepers powerless.
Left Foot Bernardo Silva
The story’s still being written for 25-year-old Bernardo Silva and his thus far glittering career, honing his skills in both France and, most recently, England.
As so often is the case, Bernardo slaloms past his opponents as if a string’s attaching his left foot to the ball, lacing his close control with end product, be it in search of a team mate in the final third, or picking out the top corner. As far as left foots go, his is certainly one of the very best going.
For years and years, Portugal have been considered to be in the second tier of international football.
The giants like France, Germany, Brazil and Argentina have always been considered the better teams at international level, with the best talent always seemingly having one of those passports to their name.
Portugal have been grouped with the likes of England and Holland as perennial under-achievers despite having plenty of talent in their squad. It’s all changed now though.
After consecutive 0-0 draws against France and Spain, it may seem like a weird conclusion to come to. But this is the final stretch of a long process that has seen Portugal win the last two competitive tournaments they have been a part of – including the European Championships in 2016.
Plenty of fans and critics like to point out that Portugal won just one of their games in that entire tournament during the initial 90 minutes, the 2-0 semi-final win over Wales. What they fail to mention is they didn’t lose any games during the tournament. Fernando Santos has done a fantastic job of making Portugal almost impenetrable defensively.
Since losing to Uruguay in the World Cup Round of 16 back in 2018, Portugal have only lost one game in all competitions – friendlies included. They’ve beaten Italy, Holland, Serbia, Croatia, and Sweden in that time, while also drawing against France, Spain and Croatia too.
They’ve also managed to get a squad together which is arguably among the top 3 in the world in terms of pure talent. Defensively, Rui Patricio patrols a backline expertly well as a man with his experience should. In front of him, Pepe is arguably one of the most underrated defenders of all-time ad next to him is an undeniable prospect in Ruben Dias. At full-back the Selecçao have incredible depth with the likes of Ricardo Pereira, João Cancelo, Nelson Semedo and Raphael Guerreiro in the current group while youngsters like Nuno Mendes are coming through too.
In midfield they arguably have the deepest pool of options outside of the French. Danilo Pereira and William Carvalho provide a solid base to build from, with a wide passing range to go with their defensive capabilities. Both men have expert positioning and are great at reading the game, which allows the attacking players to flourish. Other options in the deeper positions include João Moutinho, Ruben Neves, Andre Gomes and Renato Sanches too.
In the more attacking midfield positions the depth continues. In addition to guaranteed starters Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes, Portugal’s options include Gonçalo Guedes, Trinçao, Diogo Jota and Rafa Silva for different occasions.
Portugal’s weakest position is arguably in centre forward and yet they still have the greatest goalscorer in modern football history. Cristiano Ronaldo has moved away from the left-wing position in recent years to a more central role and he’s flourished. During Sky’s broadcast of the draw with France they revealed a stunning stat. If you took all of Cristiano Ronaldo’s goals for Portugal score prior to his 30th birthday, he would still be their all-time top goalscorer with 49 goals. Alongside him, young prospect João Felix is making a name for himself while Andre Silva provides a reliable goal threat in the squad too.
With Santos looking to pair Felix and Ronaldo together going forward, Portugal’s strongest XI is arguably one of the best in world football right now. With a manager and captain who believe in winning by any means necessary too, they need fans to start believing now. Previously against the top sides, Portugal would hang back and defend and look to counter-attack with Ronaldo leading the charge but these last two performances have shown progression; Portugal can go toe-to-toe with the best.
It’s time for Portugal to stop worrying about the prospect of facing the big boys at tournaments now – they’re one of them.