It was from a place of immeasurable faith that Fernando Santos, a day away from Portugal’s potentially fateful clash against Hungary in the Euro 2016 group stage, declared to the world that he’d only return home on July 11th under jubilant circumstances, bidding to take Portugal all the way amongst the threat of an early dash home from the tournament.
In a moment of pure prophecy, Santos’ heralding speech took his 23-man squad from the jaws of elimination to the promised land, defeating hosts France to conquer European football for the first time in Portugal’s history. Nobody believed the veteran of management back then, maybe not even himself, but his words, replicated again ahead of yet another affair with Hungary, carry a different weight coming into this summer’s action.
The wealth in talent that Santos holds within his 26-man squad, coupled with an additional international honour in the UEFA Nations League in 2019, sees Portugal stand, even in a very challenging group next to World Cup-winning France & Germany, as one of the favourites for the European centrepiece.
But who will form part of the recipe in the Seleção’s attempts to defend their title as European champions? PortuGOAL reviews the options we’re likely to see out in the red and green of Portugal.
The road so far
It wasn’t exactly a clean sail for Portugal throughout the qualifiers, with early clashes against Ukraine and Serbia in Group B quickly slashing any hope of Cristiano Ronaldo and co. making it to 2020 with one of those immaculate 100% records that qualifiers like to throw up, drawing the opening two games instead.
A return fixture away to Serbia set the path for Portugal’s eventually successful campaign, despite Santos being forced to tinker with the backline that largely comprised of Rui Patrício, Pepe, João Cancelo and Raphaël Guerreiro throughout. To the tune of a 4-2 victory against the Balkan outfit, Santos’ men excelled against the likes of Lithuania and Luxembourg, with the middleman between Ronaldo and Bernardo Silva in attack largely undefined from game-to-game.
João Félix was the only option, in fact, to make back-to-back team sheets leading the line prior to a humbling defeat against Ukraine in Kiev, setting the Andriy Shevchenko-led squad onto an eventual first-place finish.
Rotation increased towards the end as Portugal closed out their campaign against Lithuania and Luxembourg, taking six points en route to second place and qualification, but the fundamentals of Santos’ more pragmatic side seemed set.
Throughout the qualifiers, the pool of defenders the 66-year-old manager relied on rarely ever changed, with many of the names involved making the cut this summer, rather unsurprisingly. Rui Patrício has been the owner of the number one shirt for a long time and it seems unthinkable that that’ll change now, despite a minor dip in form at club level.
The ex-Sporting man looks set to be protected by the experienced Pepe and the recently-titled Premier League Player of the Season, Rúben Dias, with a small threat coming from Ligue 1 champion José Fonte.
Guerreiro has experience on his side against the youthful Nuno Mendes and, barring any reoccurring injuries, should hold enough trust to continue doing his thing out wide on the left, meanwhile the situation at right-back, perhaps helped out massively by Ricardo Pereira’s serious injury for Leicester City, makes it hard to look past the already oft-favoured Cancelo, also excelling in England for Manchester City.
The Mancunian connection is sure to persist throughout the right flank, with Bernardo Silva making himself a mainstay coming in off the left and mixing things up with Manchester United’s star man Bruno Fernandes and a certain number seven, that needs no introduction.
Portugal’s search for talent akin to Ronaldo’s is a dated one, particularly in the mould of a centre forward, and the current generation, part of what makes Portugal such an attractive quantity, is beginning to deliver on its promise.
In what all the great managers consider ‘a good headache’ to have, Santos will have to choose between Liverpool’s Diogo Jota, Ex-Benfica sensation Félix, Eintracht Frankfurt goal-getter André Silva, Pedro Gonçalves and Gonçalo Guedes to rub shoulders with Ronaldo and Bernardo in attack.
The latest outings against Spain and Israel and exemplary form for club and country suggest that Jota will be the man elected to lead the line, enabling fluidity in attack that allows both Ronaldo and Bernardo to roam inwards.
Atletico Madrid’s Félix offers the same kind of mobility and a creative eye unlike any other of his competitors, but whether he can package all of that with consistency on the day is what Portugal’s manager will be pondering.
André Silva’s 28-goal haul in the Bundesliga can’t be overlooked either and the out-and-out striker, historically, has offered a unique link-up with his national team captain when called upon. But there’s somehow a portion of convincing to be done by the former FC Porto man, whose physical capabilities, much like Guedes’ and Rafa Silva’s, sees them bunch as impact options.
Many questions also revolve around who Santos will back at the base of his midfield. The manager’s eye for a more regimented structure points towards a standard defensive midfielder making the cut on a regular basis, as opposed to a more constructive figure, like Rúben Neves, who should play slightly further forward.
The preferences at play point towards a straight shoot-out between Danilo Pereira and the previously-favoured William Carvalho, whose best form seems to have evaded him at Real Betis.
With France and Germany to come, however, there’s every chance Santos (not for the first time) pairs the two towering midfielders in a more cautious double pivot, with Renato Sanches, Sérgio Oliveira, João Moutinho and the aforementioned Neves, offering change off the bench.
The ingredients are there for Portugal to make that change and play the football the fans are desperate to see this golden generation play, but on one of the biggest stages around, with dates against France and Germany on the board, it’d stand as a surprise to see Santos reinvent his own wheel.
Predicted starting XI for Portugal at Euro 2020
Rui Patrício, João Cancelo, Pepe, Rúben Dias, Raphaël Guerreiro, Danilo, William Carvalho, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota, Cristiano Ronaldo
By Patrick Ribeiro