Chance has once again brought Portugal together with their Iberian neighbours in a major tournament, as they open World Cup 2018 against Spain, in what will be the fourth meeting in the last eight major tournaments between the two nations. It is the opening game for both teams in Group B, and given the way the first World Cup match went for the two sides in Brazil last time out, both will be desperate to make a positive start.
The Spanish supporters may recognize a few of the Portuguese names on the team-sheet, as several young, ambitious, Portuguese are rising to prominence in Spain’s La Liga, being developed by the very nation they hope to be facing on 15 June. PortuGOAL analyses four players from an exciting crop of talented youngsters who will hope to join Real Madrid and Seleção superstar Cristiano Ronaldo as Portugal’s La Liga representatives in Russia.
One of the debates facing Portugal supporters is how to replace Cristiano Ronaldo when time finally catches up on the Madeiran phenomenon. Usually, the answer comes in the form of several players, instead of just one. Hopefully Bernardo Silva can replace his creativity, Gelson Martins can replace his pace, and Andre Silva can replace his goals. Very rarely, if ever, has it been declared that one player could potentially replicate Ronaldo’s production. Gonçalo Guedes, the dynamic Valencia winger, possesses all the elements needed to be mentioned in that conversation.
While it may be unreasonable to hope Guedes’ career can match that of Cristiano Ronaldo, the combination of prodigious talent and a relentless work ethic has drawn comparisons. He has blistering pace, unforgiving footwork, and the ability to score from anywhere. In the season where Ronaldo turned 21 years old (the same age as Guedes now), he scored nine times and added six assists in 33 appearances for Manchester United. Guedes, in comparison, has accumulated three goals and has five assists in the first half of the La Liga campaign, despite missing around a month due to his late arrival from PSG and an injury layoff. He could end the season with a comparable stat line to a young Ronaldo. Valencia are certainly convinced, with the Spanish side reportedly in negotiations to make the loan move from the Parisian club permanent.
The highlight for Guedes this season was his man-of-the-match performance against Sevilla in October. He contributed a stunning goal, a precise, vindictive pass to set up an assist, and another goal in stoppage time to complete a near-perfect performance. Any Seleção supporter only needed to watch his match against Saudi Arabia to see how intimidating he can be. He tormented the Saudi defence and looked the most likely player to score all match, finally getting his reward in the second half.
The only question that remains is if he can be consistent in his production moving toward the future. He can be electrifying to watch when he is on form, with imposing dribbling skills, great vision and an eye for goal. He is prolific at finding space, able to weave through defenders or pick out a perfect pass. The only concern is if he can improve his finishing, and keep up his pace from season to season. But remember: the same questions were asked about a 21-year-old Cristiano Ronaldo.
The need for young centre-backs has never been more of a prominent issue for Portugal. After relying on aging defenders for the last two major tournaments (at Euro 2016 Ricardo Carvalho was the oldest player to ever represent Portugal at a major tournament), developing fresh starters has been a concern. One player who is trying to be the answer that Portugal craves is Eibar’s Paulo Oliveria.
Statistically, Oliveria has been one of the best centre-backs in La Liga, averaging 2.5 interceptions and nearly 6.0 clearances per game. However, behind the statistics what stands out is his ability to read the game and his defensive impact on crosses and set pieces. He has gone from a rotational player for Sporting last season to one of the first names on the team sheet for Eibar this term.
Still, his Eibar defence can look a bit disorganised at times, certainly suggesting that his play is not always sharp. Nevertheless, he has made strides in his career this season, playing against some distinguished competition and looking very capable for the most part. If he keeps progressing, then he stands a good chance of becoming a mainstay in the Portuguese back line.
He will still face an uphill battle to be included in the Russia squad having not played for Portugal since 2015, and not even named in the experimental squad that Santos put out during the November friendlies. However, Santos would be foolish not to give him an opportunity in the upcoming friendlies before the World Cup.
Another player making his way through the La Liga ranks is Real Sociedad’s Kévin Rodrigues. A side playing its way to the top half of La Liga, Sociedad has relied on Rodrigues as their main left-back. The 23-year-old has played in 14 matches for Sociedad this season, and has been a solid addition to their senior squad after spending time in their reserves the last couple of years.
Rodrigues fits the mould of a Portuguese full-back, putting in good shifts defensively while not hesitating to burst down the flanks in support of the attack. He has a goal and two assists this season in La Liga, and is a good crosser of the ball when he has the chance.
While he has not dominated Spain, he is making good advances in his first full season in the top Spanish league. Raphael Guerreiro and Fábio Coentrão are strong favourites to make the squad in Russia in his position, but both players have been injury prone and Rodrigues offers a viable alternative to Fernando Santos. In a position that seemed relatively thin a year ago, the play of Rodrigues and Coentrão has certainly added some depth heading into the summer. At still a young age, and fairly inexperienced, there is optimism that Rodrigues can provide competition for Guerreiro as their careers progress.
In one of the high-profile moves out of Portugal this summer, Nelson Semedo left the Portuguese capital for Barcelona, landing Benfica a massive transfer fee. As is the case with many players moving to one of the top clubs in the world, Semedo has found it difficult to break into the first team on a regular basis for Barcelona. Although he has only featured in the starting eleven for his new club seven times in La Liga, Barcelona did rely on him during their Champions League group stage campaign. While he has not had as many minutes as he would have had in Portugal, Semedo has put in some good stints against some of the world’s best in La Liga.
Defensively, Semedo’s strength is his ability to read his opponent and make tackles. Rarely getting beaten down his flank, he limits crosses that come into the box from his side. However, his real ability comes from dribbling out of the back and becoming a dangerous threat going forward. He has the capability to draw defenders out of position and find a pass to enhance his side’s attacking move.
One of the highlights of his Barcelona career so far was a great performance against Italian giants Juventus. He looked to be Barcelona’s key player in what ended up being a 0-0 draw in the Champions League. Getting forward well and making several key tackles, he showed his new employers what they might hope to have in this young defender.
To break into Fernando Santos line-up will be difficult for the former Benfica man, as he will need to overcome a couple of players who have featured regularly for Portugal. His main opposition for a spot will be Cédric, who has always performed well in a Portugal shirt.
By Justino Flores (Twitter: @LordEder7)