The European Champions booked their place at the 2018 World Cup with an authoritative display on Tuesday night in Lisbon, raising hopes that the Seleção could achieve something extraordinary in Russia next summer.

“It’s legitimate to think about winning the World Cup,” said midfielder João Mário after the victory against Switzerland. “We may not be favourites, but we are contenders for sure.” Despite giving a display of midfield intelligence, energy and poise, Mário had been upstaged by two other members of Portugal’s exciting young generation, William Carvalho and Bernardo Silva.

Juxtapose the vibrancy and talent of such players against the big-game knowhow of veterans Pepe and João Moutinho (both of whom were flawless against the Swiss) and the continuing x-factor that is captain Cristiano Ronaldo, and you have an explanation for the recent success of the national team. It is this harmonious combination of youth and experience that has a nation dreaming of the ultimate prize.

Ever since Fernando Santos was appointed Portugal coach in September 2014, his open-ended and fair-minded selection policy has brought spectacular benefits to the Seleção.

“Every player who is eligible to play for Portugal has a chance of selection - it makes no difference how old or young he is,” he said in his unveiling press conference. Santos was as good as his word. The Euro 2016 squad included the youngest ever player to represent Portugal at a major tournament, Renato Sanches, and the oldest, Ricardo Carvalho. The rest, as they say, is history.

Portugal would not have won their first ever major tournament without the crucial contributions of old hands Nani, Ricardo Quaresma, Pepe and José Fonte, all the wrong side of thirty, just like they would not have lifted the trophy that memorable Paris night without the efforts of young tyros Raphael Guerreiro, Mário or Sanches, aged 22, 23 and 18 respectively at the time.

Last chance

For many of the old guard, next year’s World Cup will almost certainly be their last. Given his unmatched hunger for football achievement, it is not fanciful to suggest Ronaldo could still be part of the national team make-up in 2022, at 37 years of age, but if he is to bring his extraordinary prowess to bear by pushing Portugal to glory at the planet’s greatest sporting event, it has to be at next summer’s World Cup.

For Pepe and Moutinho, two outstanding servants for the Seleção over the past decade, and Quaresma, Fonte, Bruno Alves and Nani (if selected), this is very definitely their last World Cup. Portugal under Santos has become a perfect symbiosis, the older players mentoring their soon-to-be successors and the younger players offering a fresh impetus, extravagant talent and boundless energy to cover for their ageing colleagues when need be.

Not that Portuguese football fans are excessively worried about the future beyond Russia. The heralded emergence of a second Geração de Ouro, especially in midfield, has come to fruition with the impressive depth of talent now kicking into full footballing maturity. Bernardo Silva is the flagbearer of a generation that has every chance of following in the footsteps of first group of players to earn that moniker at the turn of the millennium, led by Luís Figo, Rui Costa and Paulo Sousa.

One need only look at the clubs many of the new generation play for to understand that Portugal continues to overperform in terms of producing prodigious talents, with Seleção players scattered around Europe’s top teams from Italy (André Silva and João Mário at the Milan clubs), Germany (Guerreiro at Dortmund), Spain (Nelson Semedo at Barcelona) and England (Bernardo at Manchester City).

Ready

What is so exciting for Portugal is not only that these players are representing clubs who have genuine aspirations of going deep and winning the Champions League in the coming seasons, but that they are more than bit-part players. They are young, but they ready for the here and now. And for Portugal the here and now is the Russia World Cup.

Amid the festivities in the Portuguese capital on Tuesday night, coach Fernando Santos, ever the pragmatist, was already thinking ahead. “My focus now is November, and the friendly matches. This is an ongoing job of assessment to choose the final 23 players. We’ll try and form as strong a squad as possible for the tournament.”

Boasting a record of 16 victories in 17 qualifying matches and a European Championship triumph since taking over, nobody questions Santos’ ability to again hit upon a squad that will maximise Portugal’s chances of pulling off what only two other nations have ever managed: a World Cup win on the back of a European Championship victory (Germany 1974 and Spain 2010).

Euro 2016 was an unforgettable tournament for Portugal. But it may have been just the appetizer.

by Tom Kundert

 

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  • Guest - jon/usa

    I agree with most of the points that have been raised on this site over the past couple of weeks. In Ronaldo and Andre Silva, we have two guys who can be counted on to put the ball in the back of the net. We have quality wingers, an world-class #10 in Bernardo, a stacked midfield, and quite possibly -- along with Brazil and Spain -- the best collection of fullbacks in international football apart (Semedo, Guerreiro, Ricardo, Cedric, Cancelo).

    Center-back does remain an area of concern. Pepe is world-class and Jose Fonte and Bruno Alves usually get the job done when called upon, but the lack of quality center-backs under the age of 30 is certainly alarming. I'm just not convinced that the likes of Luis Neto and Daniel Carrico are good enough. Paulo Oliveira and Edgar Ie are playing regularly in quality leagues, but it still remains to be seen if they can cut it at the highest level. Ruben Dias is another young CB with plenty of potential, but he is still far too inexperienced to be given a shot with the Seleccao.

    Danilo definitely has all of the physical tools to excel as a center-back, but excelling as a tough-tackling #6 doesn't always translate into excelling in the heart of the defense. It takes a lot of time to adjust to operating in a back-line and only the most tactically intelligent footballers can pull it off. Therefore, while Danilo could very well prove to be a superb center-back if given the chance, he is still largely unproven in that role.

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  • Hi Jon, thanks for continuing to enhance this site with your brilliant comments. I agree about Danilo. I remember seeing him at CB a few times for Porto (under Peseiro and/or Lopetegui - can't quite remember) and he wasn't too great, admitedly in a team struggling at the time, whereas at DM he has been consistently superb for Porto these last few years, even when the team as a whole has been poor. Being a brilliant DM does not automatically mean you can be as effective at CB. That said, given our lack of options there, it is something that may be considered. Curiously, William Carvalho has also been used at CB by Sporting, and has done ok there, although the way he's playing it would be almost a crime to take him out of his current position.

    As for the other problem position, left-back, (if Guerreiro and Coentrão aren't fit) I think Santos has actually missed a trick by not using or considering Ricardo Pereira there. He played a season at LB for Nice and was so good he won LB of the month in France twice if memory serves me well. Let's see how Santos tackles these issues in the friendlies. He's done everything pretty much perfectly so far so I'm confident he'll find solutions.

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  • Ruben Vezo is an option at CB for the future but needs to leave Valencia. Cant really think of any others?
    Don't like the idea of Danilo at CB - he's a DM.

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  • Guest - ANON

    I shed a tear man, when I think of how far we can go and the spirits of this team ! Forca Portugal

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  • Guest - Arnaldo

    Our best asset is the engineer Fernando Santos. He knows how to manage a team to win tournaments. And unlike other managers he lets the team outshine him.

    from United States
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  • Quaresma yes!
    Nani no.

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  • Guest - Alexandre

    What about Rony Lopes? Not saying he should be playing, I just have no idea where he is at in his development and he used to be named as a future great.

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  • Guest - George

    Rony Lopes is at Monaco starting pretty regularly in the same position that Bernardo was playing last season - on the wing. From what I can tell, he's been encouraged to cut inside and create in the same fashion that Bernardo did at Monaco, and still does for Portugal. Admittedly, I haven't watched all his games be he does seem to be settling in more and more as time goes on. At that trajectory, he should certainly be considered for the squad over the likes of Andre Gomes, who barely plays anymore.

    I agree again about the Ricardo Pereira thing Tom mentioned. He, like Bernardo, has been a player I've been clamouring for for months, and taking some criticism for it (remember the whole "armchair manager" argument stemmed from people complaining about Eliseu and Bernardo). Well, hopefully people can finally realize what we've seen in Bernardo all along and why we were so passionate about his inclusion or lack thereof. The same feelings apply to Ricardo because, as Tom pointed out, there were times where he dominated Ligue 1 as a LB. Surely he is worthy enough for a backup option at that position over Eliseu. And yes, I admit I was one of those players calling him trash and never wanting to see him in a Portugal shirt again, but, are people really going to continue to blame us for that? Do you have that short a memory that you don't remember his performances from just a few months ago? While he hasn't been as bad as in the past, and, I've walked my comments back a bit, let's face it - he still prone to calamity and he's long in the tooth. Our CBs are old enough, they shouldn't need to worry about covering up for a LB who has little pace and can't track back after gambling at the wrong time. Which is why many people, myself included, are frustrated and feel like Ricardo deserves just as much of a chance as Bernardo finally got. We believe that, especially defensively, he can make a similar impact too.

    And lastly, I want to throw two other names out there: You can't talk about Wolves players without mentioning Helder Costa. It seems, for whatever reason, he gets overlooked by many of the commenters on this site and I'm not sure why. He was Wolves' player of the season last year, winning just about every year-end award possible. He can create, score, has blistering pace, and - and I think this is a point we need to start talking about - he's brilliant on penalties. For me, I think he should be considered just as much as the likes of Bruma, Gonçalo Guedes, and Gelson Martins.

    If I had to name a 23-man squad today, this is what it'd look like:

    GKs: Rui Patricio, Anthony Lopes, Beto
    RBs: Cedric Soares, Nelson Semedo
    LBs: Raphael Guerreiro, Ricardo Pereira
    CBs: Pepe, Jose Fonte, Bruno Alves, Edgar Ie
    DMs: William Carvalho, Danilo
    FWs/Ss: Cristiano Ronaldo, Andre Silva
    MFs/Ws: Joao Mario, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota*, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Moutinho, Ricardo Quaresma, Gonçalo Guedes**, Helder Costa

    * This spot is essentially a toss-up between Adrien, Renato Sanches, and Diogo Jota. Whoever is playing and playing better, gets the spot.
    ** This spot is a toss-up between Guedes, Gelson Martins, and Bruma. I lean towards Guedes because of his versatility, work rate, selfless attitude, and ability to score long-range goals as well as create. I like Gelson and believe he'll be a great player for Portugal but he hasn't looked comfortable as of yet. Also, among our wing options, he's probably the one least likely to score a goal. I prefer to have all the goal-scoring options we can get.

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  • Rony Lopes, amazing talent, technically gifted, one of the first names to come up in the new golden generation of Portuguese football, beautiful left foot, he's the type of player that would create lots of havoc for the opposition, he's got speed, can make timely passes, he's got that South American style of play, he's actually Portuguese and Brazilian, baring injuries, he should be call up by Santos, we need players like him, Rony Lopes and Bernardo Silva would be something to watch....Go Portugal!!!!!

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  • Guest - Andre/UK

    Nice article, Tom. And yes Portugal will go into the tournament with a realistic shot at going all the way. Why not? The new expanded Euros, which we won, is virtually as hard to win as the World Cup, and with new quality additions to the squad such as Andre and Bernardo Silva and Nelson Semedo, our squad next year will be stronger than it was at the Euros. I feel we have a lot of things going for us: squad strength and depth across all areas, a good blend of new young hungry players and seasoned experienced players, an intelligent coach who has proved he knows how to get results and is flexible in terms of his tactics and selection, and we won't go into the tournament with a lot of pressure as we won't be generally regarded as one of the main favorites (despite being current European champs). This usual writing off of our chances will suit us just fine!

    As has been mentioned, the strike partnership of CR7 and Andre Silva was devastating in the qualifiers, and the emergence of Silva means we will go into a tournament for the the first time in years without Ronaldo having to take all the weight of goalscoring responcibility. Santos' tactical discipline and master plans made us so hard to break down and beat at the Euros. The one thing that was lacking really at the Euros was some flair and creativity in the middle. Bernardo can be the one to provide that flair and creativity now, and if we will remain as hard to beat as we were at the Euros, and with Bernardo and Andre Silva giving us more creativity and potency up front, we could really take some stopping.

    While I agree that central defence is our most concerning area, I'm not as worried as some others seem to be. Pepe, Fonte and Alves are all over 30, but CB is the position (along with goalkeeper) where often players are even better in their 30s. Pepe is still one of the top 5 CBs in the world, Fonte was good enough in his position for us to win the Euros and Bruno Alves has been very reliable down the years and is a very experienced back up CB. As for the 4th CB spot, we have more than 2/3 of this season still to come to sort out that spot. Neto and Carrico have been playing at the top level for years, while we do have some promising youngsters in that position including Ricardo Ferreira and Edgar Ie. As others have mentioned, Danilo could also be tried out as a CB. Santos has 8 months to find the best solution for the 4th CB spot and I'm sure he will. All in all, this is looking like the most exciting squad we have had since Euro 2000 and we really should go into the tournament with high aspirations.

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Fernando Santos
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