Onward and upward

Momentum. The mathematical description of an object’s mass and velocity working in concert. It is much harder to stop an object in motion.

Having overcame the mountainous obstacle of securing its first major championship in 2016, the Seleção have gathered velocity and hurdled the negative inertia of the shattered hopes and dreams of 1966, 2004, 2006, and 2012.

Our destiny has been fundamentally altered. It is now inexorably tilted in the direction of prestigious achievements which would have been unimaginable even just five years ago. There is a palpable sense of expansion, something building. But we are not there yet.

After adding the inaugural Nations League trophy to the cabinet, the Seleção must now decipher how to channel the building momentum into a vehicle for further conquest: next year’s Euros and possibly the World Cup, where even Cristiano Ronaldo’s leadership has proven insubstantial to propel the Seleção into that elite class of nations.

But the more immediate concern is qualification for Euro 2020. That there are still people who do not believe we can correct course after the disappointing results against Ukraine and Serbia…well, read your history. That said, the Sept 7th visit to Belgrade looms large, especially with the return leg against Ukraine still to play on 14 October in Kiev.

Realistically, Portugal need to win one of those matches, draw the other, and run the table against Luxembourg and Lithuania. If that fails, the UEFA Nations League playoff route is still open to us.

That all sounds like relatively decent news, but there are a few difficulties Portugal will have to sort out first. Despite my own personal reservations, the double pivot worked pretty well against the Dutch in the Nations League final, but will it be as successful against a less adventurous side that does not try to control possession? If Plan A is the double-pivot, a formidable Plan B will be required when Ukraine or Serbia choose to sit back in two banks of four at the edge of their own penalty area for the entire ninety minutes.

Defense

Our preferred centreback options of Rúben Dias plus one of Pepe or José Fonte might be enough to get us through qualification, but there has to be serious mental capital invested in selecting more robust options for next summer’s main event. Montpellier’s Pedro Mendes has been ripe for development for the past few seasons, and you have to think one or both of Rúben Vezo and Paulo Oliveira might deserve a chance if they can sustain good form for their respective La Liga clubs. Many Portugal fans are screaming for Ferro to make Fernando Santos’ cut too, and his partnership with Rúben Dias at Benfica surely cannot hurt his chances. Meanwhile, at 25 years old, Edgar Ié appears to be taking a step backwards having been sold to Trabzonspor and immediately sent on loan to Feyenoord in the Dutch Eredivisie. My overall rendering is that our CB situation does not appear as hopeless as it once did, but it still is not altogether inspiring either. Nevertheless, failure to eventually replace Fonte and Pepe is probably the scenario most likely to halt Portugal’s forward momentum in world football. Serious talent is readily coming available in just about every other position.

Raphaël Guerreiro's situation at Dortmund is also a potential concern. He is being offered an improved contract and an extension, but if he does not accept he will likely be sold, destination unknown. Thorgan Hazard, brother of Real Madrid’s Eden Hazard, featured at LB last weekend and was good so there is no assurance Guerreiro will be able to hold onto his starting role anyway. Guerreiro may be one of Portugal’s most underrated talents, but his form with Portugal is strongly linked to his utilization at club level. When Dortmund consistently play him in midfield, he seems to lose a certain degree of tactical nous. When they play him at left-back as they did towards the end of last season, he plays much better defensively for Portugal, see the Nations League final against the Dutch. Mário Rui’s future with Napoli is also uncertain. His playing time diminished considerably in the second half of the 2018/19 season to the extent that Rui’s agent began making the type of statements you only hear when their client’s relationship with their present club has become irreparable. Statements like “there are no shortage of offers for Mário Rui” and “the player’s dream is Benfica.” But no move has transpired so far which likely means more time on the bench for Rui as reports indicate Faouzi Ghoulam will start for Napoli.  

On the opposite side of the back-four, Nelson Semedo does appear to be asserting himself both for Portugal and his club side, Barcelona. This is great news because I wonder how much playing time João Cancelo will actually get for Manchester City. As happy as I am to see him at a big club, Cancelo’s utility as a right-back for Pep’s version of City appears limited at best. There is even talk he might not feature as a RB at all. If that happens, Cancelo’s outlook with Portugal certainly is not going to improve, especially with Ricardo Pereira in such terrifc form. Pereira has been his side’s best player in both of their Premier League matches so far this season and looks set to be Semedo’s main competition at right-back.

Midfield and forward options

Bruno Fernandes staying put at Sporting is going to give him something to play for which can only help his form. I like him to score 30 more goals this season. His combination with Bernardo Silva in midfield is arguably becoming one of the more attractive pairings in world football. They complement each other well, Bernardo Silva better in possession and Bruno Fernandes more direct, and both are well-known for outworking every other player on the pitch. Then there’s Pizzi. At 30, his career seems to be just beginning. The beating heart of Benfica, he and another rejuvenated talent, Rafa Silva, are playing so well it might not be possible to keep them out of Portugal’s starting XI for much longer.

William and Danilo will likely form the base of Portugal’s midfield for the foreseeable future, but there are so many good alternatives present now that it seems unrealistic to even guess who Santos will choose in any given match. Rúben Neves, in my opinion, is still a season or two away from stamping his permanent claim in defensive midfield, all due respect to his goalscoring prowess.

Finally, at the cutting edge of Portugal's 4-4-2, João Félix and Diogo Jota are both clamoring for their place alongside Cristiano Ronaldo. The calculus is not that difficult though. If Félix has even a modicum of success with Atletico, the role is his. Diogo Jota has great qualities, but he doesn't play Champions League football, and his skillset is not as diverse. For the record, I still think Jota deserves to start with Ronaldo in a 4-4-2, but Félix gets better press and, perhaps more importantly, has already featured with Ronaldo while Jota is still waiting for his first senior cap.

Make no mistake, on the strength of its midfield and attacking options, Portugal are even now devising a hostile takeover of world football. Bernardo Silva is becoming a phenomenon and João Félix is poised to stake Portugal’s claim in La Liga. The sale of Bruno Fernandes might not have happened this time, but it will. Rafael Leão is carrying the flag for Portugal in Serie A. Wolverhampton are the most exciting non-UCL team in England, and it’s due almost entirely to their Portuguese contingent. All of this success is going to fuel the momentum Portugal are riding in the wake of events over the last three years of competition. 

Critics still reject the merit of Portugal’s achievements. “The Euros were a fluke” and “the Nations League was unimportant.” But Portugal are competing alongside and defeating quality teams. We are led by a thoughtful and strategically astute Mister who seems wholly unaffected by criticism. While the international media spins our every achievement, Portugal are quietly assembling a formidable squad of precociously talented youngsters and weathered veterans led by Cristiano Ronaldo, the nation’s heritage of bravery, conquest, and heroism personified. Though he recently admitted that criminal accusations against him made 2018 “the worst year of his life,” Ronaldo’s irrepressible nature continues to inspire everyone around him. Off the field, there may be troubling indictments which I very much hope are untrue. On the field, he is Portugal’s center of gravity, its forever talisman, and the trailblazer for pathways new, along which future generations of the Seleção will carry on the legacy.

Who knows? Within the next 10 months of international football we may be talking about Portugal’s very own European dynasty. Don’t believe me? Neither did many believe we could win Euro 2016, myself included. The momentum is with us. There is plenty of football legend yet to be told before this rock we abide on ceases to rotate on its axis. It is inescapable now…..the pages of history will continue being bathed in the red and green of Portugal.

by Nathan Motz