After a shock defeat at the start to their qualifying campaign, Portugal qualified for France with uncharacteristic ease. With a team containing the flourishing talents of Andre Gomes, Renato Sanches and William Carvalho, not to mention captain Cristiano Ronaldo in what may be his penultimate European Championships, could they go further than 2012’s semi-final defeat?
Starting with a 1-0 defeat at home to Albania was hardly an ideal way to begin their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign, and it cost coach Paulo Bento his job following a disappointing showing at the World Cup in Brazil. Yet Portugal, under new coach Fernando Santos, recovered from this early setback to ease their way to France with seven subsequent wins to top Group I and avoid another qualifying play-off, having endured this route into their last three international tournaments.
In Santos, Portugal have a manager with experience of getting the most out of a tournament squad, following his achievements as Greece manager. In 2012, he managed to get a limited Greece team out of a group including hosts Poland and Russia, before defeat to Germany in the quarter final, and he repeated the feat in Brazil at the World Cup two years ago, taking his side to the second round for the first time, only losing out to Costa Rica on penalties. The current Portugal squad has more quality than that Greece team, but his 100% record in competitive fixtures to date suggests that he has been able to adapt and get consistency from a team who have failed to achieve this in recent qualifying campaigns.
On top of their solid form going into Euro 2016, Portugal were also fortunate with the draw they received. Being placed in Group F at the Euros means Portugal will face Austria, Hungary and Iceland in the group stage, none of whom have qualified for the tournament within the last 30 years, with the exception of Austria’s entry as hosts in 2008. Although, particularly in the case of Austria, they may have dark-horse potential, a team of Portugal’s experience should be able to finish in first place. Winning the group would keep them clear of Germany before the final and France, Spain and either Belgium or Italy before the semi-finals. Although that scenario would lead them to face another major team at the penultimate stage, as they did four years ago when they were defeated by Spain on penalties, confidence and momentum would be on their side which can have a huge impact, as Italy showed by unexpectedly defeating Germany in Warsaw last time around.
While scoring just eleven goals en route to France puts them bottom of the group winners in terms of goals-per-game ratio (1.38, as opposed to England’s 3.1), the Seleção’s defence, including veterans Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho as well as rising star and reported Liverpool target Raphäel Guerreiro only conceded five goals, fourth fewest of the ten automatic qualifiers, giving them defensive stability for Santos to build upon.
Complementing the experience and guile of the likes of Pepe, Portugal also a crop of promising young players, a number of whom were part of the Under-21 team who finished runners-up to Sweden at last year’s European Under-21 Championship in Prague. Among these are Guerreiro (aged 22), Valencia’s Gomes (22) and Sanches (18) and William Carvalho (24) of Benfica. For Sanches in particular, who came into the squad as a replacement for the injured Bernardo Silva, the Euros could provide the chance to display his skills and lethal long-range shot on the international stage prior to his move to Bayern Munich.
Of course the main factor likely to determine Portugal’s fortunes will be the fitness and form of their main man, arguably the tournament’s major star in the absence of Messi, Suarez et al, Cristiano Ronaldo. Euro 2016 is important for Ronaldo, as at 31 he is running out of chances to really make his mark on a major international tournament. He played while clearly not totally fit in Brazil as Portugal exited at the group stage, and although he was significant in getting his team to the semi-final against Spain four years ago, he failed to shine in that crucial match and did not take a penalty in the shoot-out, he or Bento possibly having gambled on his taking an unrequired fifth. For a player who has already achieved a remarkable amount in his career, leading his national team to victory would be add another dimension to his legacy. Portugal will hope that he is motivated, fit and able to combine with his team-mates to lift the trophy in Paris on 10 July.
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