Portugal’s UEFA 2020 European Championship qualification campaign got off to a lacklustre start with two home draws against Ukraine and Serbia at the Estádio da Luz. Despite creating more than enough chances to win both matches, Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to the squad failed to have the desired effect, and four dropped points had many reaching for the panic button.
One thing Seleção supporters have understood over the years when it comes to qualifying is the hard way is the only way. Many questions have been raised about Fernando Santos’ personnel and formation decisions. Let’s try and dissect some of the biggest decisions he must make and get the glass half full.
Sort out the midfield
Santos started with a midfield three of João Moutinho, Rúben Neves and William Carvalho against Ukraine. Rafa replaced Neves in the 62nd minute and Moutinho made way for João Mário late on.
The Wolverhampton pair were axed against Serbia with Danilo and Rafa getting starts. Pairing Danilo and William together is a new strategy for Santos, partly enabled by the former Sporting player converting from a holding midfielder to a box-to-box role since his summer switch to Real Betis.
Danilo scored a fantastic equaliser and William showed that he is more than a one-trick pony, but questions remain. Is this the way forward? What is Portugal’s most effective formation? What about Moutinho and Neves? João Mário? Bruno Fernandes? Pizzi?
Dyego Sousa earned his first Portugal cap off the bench against Ukraine and replaced André Silva in the starting XI against Serbia. The 29-year-old Brazilian-born forward has been prolific since his move to Sporting Braga but hadn’t scored in six appearances for the Arsenalistas.
André Silva appeared to have turned the corner at Sevilla before a downturn in goals, but he went closest to scoring against Ukraine and shouldn’t be playing second fiddle to Dyego Sousa. Brought off the bench against Serbia, it was Silva’s header onto Rukvina’s arm that almost resulted in the winning penalty.
Sousa’s inclusion in the squad raised some eyebrows especially considering the blistering form of 19-year-old João Félix, the call-up for 22-year-old Diogo Jota not to mention 19-year-old Rafael Leão who recently scored six Ligue 1 goals in seven matches for Lille.
Have we seen the last of Dyego Sousa in a Portugal jersey? With so many young talents coming through, Santos should allow them playing time to show what they can do.
Where does Bernardo Silva fit?
Santos has had a difficult time getting the best out of Bernardo for the Seleção. Playing predominantly in a midfield three at Manchester City, he has shown flashes of brilliance for Portugal but not as consistently as necessary.
With Ronaldo’s early departure against Serbia it was Bernardo who was afforded the limelight. The 24-year-old had every opportunity to dictate from a free attacking role, he was influential and unlucky on occasions but also guilty of overplaying his hand.
Santos’ duration as Portugal manager may hinge on his ability to get the most from Bernardo. Although it’s early days, there are shades of the way several Seleção coaches singularly failed to get the best of Miguel Danny in a Portugal shirt, despite the Zenit player’s consistently magnificent club form. Finding the solution to allow Bernardo to shine for his country is perhaps the most crucial decision for Santos and one he needs to get right.
Portugal can compete without Ronaldo
The Seleção have been assumed to be a one-man team but have repeatedly proved they can get it done without their captain. The 2016 European Championship Final win against France was secured despite Ronaldo suffering an injury in the 25th minute.
He then decided not to participate in the inaugural UEFA Nations League following his summer move from Real Madrid to Juventus. Portugal still managed to get past Italy and Poland to reach the finals.
He was eager to make an impact against Ukraine in his first appearance since the World Cup, forcing two good saves from Pyatov in the first half. Ronaldo couldn’t break the deadlock however, he and his teammates unable to turn a dominant performance into all three points.
Ronaldo looked keen to make amends against Serbia but was forced off injured in the 28th minute with his side 1-0 down. The spirit and quality in the side remained, Danilo Pereira equalised but the winner was not forthcoming despite the largely one-way traffic when Ronaldo was not on the pitch.
The Portuguese panic button needs a refurbishment, but there no need to drown your sorrows in Medronho just yet. The European champions can still qualify for the 2020 tournament if they fail to finish in the top two in their qualifying group by winning the UEFA Nations League playoff in March 2020.
Failing that, away matches in Ukraine and Serbia could be favourable for the Seleção. The hosts are unlikely to be as defensive as the first legs which will suit the Portuguese.
The emergence of Rúben Dias has often been overlooked. Portugal’s central defence appears much more solid with the Benfica player in the ranks, highlighted by his crucial block in the final minutes against Ukraine after Rui Patrício’s parry.
João Cancelo showed he can defend as well as attack which is a positive sign moving forward. Raphael Guerreiro needs to adjust to the left-back role after playing as a winger for Borussia Dortmund, but if the full-backs are granted enough cover they can be extremely effective going forward.
Santos has previously shown an ability to learn from his mistakes and make the correct adjustments. Let’s see what happens in the UEFA Nations League Finals before abandoning him just yet.
By Matthew Marshall