The World Cup is almost upon us. 2016 European Champions Portugal are in action on Friday with one of the standout matches of the group phase as the Seleção lock horns with Iberian neighbours Spain, a match that could define Portugal’s campaign.
PortuGOAL will be producing podcasts throughout the tournament, and in a bumper first edition Matthew Marshall, Marino Peixoto and Tom Kundert discuss the squad makeup, what we learned from the recent friendlies, analyse Portugal's Group B opponents.
Finally, we second guess the line-up that Fernando Santos will send out against the Spanish on Friday 15 June in Sochi.
It doesn't get any bigger than this. The 2018 FIFA World Cup is here with Portugal entering as European Champions. With Fernando Santos announcing his 23-man squad on May 17 and three warm up friendlies done and dusted, let’s discuss the squad, speculate on Santos’ mindset and how he is likely to proceed in Russia.
The 2016 European Champions have undergone a makeover with 10 players from the triumph in France no longer with us. Eduardo, Ricardo Carvalho, Vieirinha, Eliseu, Danilo Pereira, André Gomes, Renato Sanches, Rafa Silva, Nani and Éder are all gone, but their replacements are more than capable.
Danilo Pereira is the only player that missed out due to injury with the others either moving on, out of form or deemed not good enough. Santos and his brains trust have done well to bring in some of Portugal’s talented youngsters and ensure that competition for places remains high.
Players coming into the 2018 World Cup squad are Beto, Rúben Dias, Mário Rui, Ricardo Pereira, Bruno Fernandes, Manuel Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Gelson Martins, Gonçalo Guedes and André Silva.
Rúben Neves and Rony Lopes might have been unfortunate to miss out after outstanding seasons, but I would still argue that the current crop is an upgrade from 2016 and one that looks to the future as much as the present.
Much of the concern about Portugal’s squad has been in central defence, with an ageing cast and apparent lack of top class youngsters coming through the ranks. Bruno Alves (36), Pepe (35) and José Fonte (34) could all be playing their final tournament for the Seleção but the future is most definitely Rúben Dias.
The 21-year-old defender burst into Benfica’s first team last season, earning a call up and getting his international debut in the first warm up friendly against Tunisia. It gave an impression that he could be in line to partner Pepe in Russia before failing to feature against Belgium and Algeria.
José Fonte played the full 90 minutes against Belgium and came off the bench against Tunisia and Algeria, a clear indication that Santos will stick with the same backline that got the job done in the latter stages of Euro 2016. This will be a learning experience for Dias who has to remain patient and wait for his chance.
Gonçalo Guedes or André Silva?
André Silva has been a vital component of Portugal’s qualifying campaign, playing the second most minutes behind Rui Patricio and scoring nine goals. With 12 goals in 23 appearances for the Seleção including the opener against Tunisia, there was little doubt his position was in jeopardy.
That was until Gonçalo Guedes stepped up with two goals against Algeria, looking very much the player many have been raving about during his time at Valencia last season. The 21-year-old has been terrifying defences in La Liga, scoring five goals and nine assists after a big money move to Paris Saint Germain appeared to stall his career.
His versatility may give him an edge, with his familiarity down the left wing another advantage which would allow João Mário to come inside and create havoc.
Silva’s season at AC Milan has been frustrating for the 22-year-old, struggling to get game time as he fell behind Patrick Cutrone and Nikola Kalinic in the pecking order. Fernando Santos has a tough decision to make.
Keep the faith
Portugal are systematically underrated and the underlying negativity that continually appears to surround the Portuguese team should provide extra motivation and help promote an ‘us against them’ mentality. The confidence displayed by Santos during Euro 2016 will carry over here and there is no doubt Portugal will believe they can win the World Cup.
The build-up and match against France in Paris in 2016 should serve as a reminder that anything is possible in life and in football. A World Cup opener against Spain may have initially prompted fear, especially after the trauma against Germany in 2014, but it’s time to look forward with positivity and hope.
Portugal 2018 World Cup squad
Goalkeepers: Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Beto (Goztepe), Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon).
Defenders: Bruno Alves (Rangers), Cedric Soares (Southampton), Jose Fonte (Dalian Yifang), Mario Rui (Napoli), Pepe (Besiktas), Raphael Guerreiro (Borussia Dortmund), Ricardo Pereira (Porto), Ruben Dias (Benfica).
Midfielders: Adrien Silva (Leicester), Bruno Fernandes (Sporting Lisbon), Joao Mario (West Ham), Joao Moutinho (Monaco), Manuel Fernandes (Lokomotiv Moscow), William Carvalho (Sporting).
Forwards: Andre Silva (AC Milan), Bernardo Silva (Manchester City), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Gelson Martins (Sporting Lisbon), Goncalo Guedes (Valencia), Ricardo Quaresma (Besiktas).