An injury-hit Portugal play Lithuania in their penultimate Euro 2020 Group B qualifier on Thursday evening. Victory in the Algarve, followed by another win away against Luxembourg on Sunday, will guarantee the reigning champions are part of the pan-European tournament next summer.
The Seleção’s preparations for the matches have been disrupted by a series of injuries, but coach Fernando Santos has no doubts: “I believe we will play two good games and we’ll win them. I’m absolutely convinced we will be at Euro 2020.”
Despite a perfect qualification record this millennium – 10 straight participations in European Championships and World Cups since 2000 – Portugal have traditionally made hard work of getting there, as highlighted by the need for playoffs to reach World Cup 2010, Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014. Things seemed to change upon the appointment of Fernando Santos, who oversaw almost perfect qualifying campaigns for Euro 2016 and World Cup 2018 – one defeat and 16 victories in 17 matches.
But a bumpy ride this time round has Portuguese fans once again reaching for their calculators. Ukraine have already won the section, and should Portugal slip up in either of their two remaining matches, Serbia could pip them for the second automatic qualifying spot, leaving the holders facing a playoff to give themselves a chance to defend their trophy.
Seleção Podcast: Portugal head into final qualifiers with depleted squad
The calibre of the opposition makes Portugal strong favourites. Lithuania and Luxembourg combined have managed only 5 points from a possible 39, unsurprisingly earned against each other, with the two nations losing all of their matches against the stronger teams in the group.
However, Portugal are without several players who would be starters if they were healthy. Central midfielder William Carvalho and centre-back Pepe have been lynchpins of the national team under Santos, but the former continues his long-term layoff following a herniated disk operation while the latter picked up an ankle knock in Porto’s defeat at Rangers last week, forcing him to drop out of the squad.
Injuries to right-back Nélson Semedo, forward João Félix and midfielder João Mário, all of whom played in Portugal’s previous two matches last month, further cuts down Santos’ options.
And fears were raised that captain Cristiano Ronaldo would be added to the list of unavailable players when he was substituted early in the second half at the weekend for Juventus against Milan. Juve coach Maurizio Sarri claimed it was due to a knee problem, CR7 himself did not look pleased to leave the pitch, and as with anything linked to the Portugal captain, the situation soon got blown out of all proportion. In the pre-match press conference Santos showed his annoyance at the constant questions regarding his captain’s fitness.
Focus on Ronaldo riles Santos
“This is a press conference about Portugal-Lithuania, not about Cristiano Ronaldo,” said a visibly irritated Santos. “Cristiano’s here, he’s selected, he’s fine and he’ll play.” When a Spanish journalist raised the issue again moments later Santos snapped back: “I’ve answered that question. If you want to ask a question about the match, I’ll answer, if you want to ask about Cristiano, I’ve nothing more to add.”
When Gonçalo Paciência was asked the same question yesterday he replied, “I would like to have taken a medical degree, but unfortunately I didn’t have time,” while Rúben Neves today said: “Ronaldo has trained well like he always does and is highly motivated for tomorrow. I don’t even know why you’re asking me this.”
With Ronaldo a certainty to play, one of the big talking points is who will join him in attack. “We know these teams will be defending in numbers and trying to surprise us on the counter-attack, but if we play at the same level as in previous games the goals will come,” said Santos.
The manager selected a top-heavy squad, and hinted that any of the three out-and-out strikers he called up could get the nod to partner the captain in a 4-4-2. “Eder and André Silva have always been with us. Gonçalo Paciência has only played one game for Portugal, because afterwards he wasn’t playing regularly. At Euro 2016 we played with two up front so it’s not a big change if we choose to do that.”
Predicted Portugal starting XI:
Rui Patrício, João Cancelo, Rúben Dias, José Fonte, Raphaël Guerreiro, Rúben Neves, João Moutinho, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, André Silva, Cristiano Ronaldo
By Tom Kundert