Portugal’s long campaign to reach the 2022 FIFA World Cup culminated in a convincing 2-0 victory against North Macedonia in the playoff final at Estádio do Dragão.
Fernando Santos has a great opportunity to fine-tune his squad in the UEFA Nations League where the Seleção will square off against Spain, Switzerland and Czech Republic.
PortuGOAL’s Matthew Marshall discusses the evolution of the squad, Santos and the future for Portugal ahead of the World Cup draw which takes place in Doha this afternoon.
Fernando Santos sprung a surprise in the playoffs with Diogo Costa replacing long time shot stopper Rui Patrício. 34-year-old Patrício has been below his best at Roma and Anthony Lopes was injured with José Sá the third keeper in the squad after consistent performances at Wolves.
Costa proved he is a top quality goalkeeper at the 2021 U21 European Championship, after which I stated on the Seleção Podcast that he should be first choice for Porto and is likely to be Patrício’s long term successor.
The 22-year-old made his senior debut against Qatar in September and started both matches at the Dragão, performed well despite limited involvement and looks to have become Portugal’s new number one.
José Fonte was ordinary in the second half against Turkey. He has provided good service to his nation, but it’s time for the 38-year-old to move on.
Pepe did well against North Macedonia, can still be relied on and will be doing everything in his power to compete at the World Cup.
Danilo recovered well after a poor start against Turkey and was impressive against North Macedonia. He continues to be an option in central defence if required, but younger options should start getting game time for the Seleção.
Rúben Dias turns 25 in May and his long-term partners are becoming clearer. Gonçalo Inácio and Tiago Djaló were both called up while David Carmo still has time to prove his worth.
The emergence of 19-year-old Nuno Mendes has been fantastic for Portugal and he started ahead of Raphaël Guerreiro against North Macedonia. Guerreiro, for so long an undisputed starter, now has a significant fight on his hands.
João Cancelo was below his best against North Macedonia but the Manchester City star is an obvious starter.
Santos has shown faith in Diogo Dalot who was selected ahead of Cédric Soares in the playoffs.
Ricardo Pereira and Nélson Semedo will also be desperate to make the World Cup squad.
Santos has a wealth of versatile options in the midfield. João Moutinho started in the playoffs, the boy from Portimão has been a joy to watch for the Seleção, but Danilo Pereira and João Palhinha are ahead of him in the holding role, while Rúben Neves’ injury was unfortunate.
William Carvalho and Matheus Nunes also can fill that role with Vitinha another versatile midfielder who made his senior debut off the bench.
Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes are untouchable in Santos’ starting side. Bernardo is a constant weapon who is simply outstanding in all facets of the game.
Bruno showed his class by scoring twice against North Macedonia, but it’s always dangerous to judge a player by goals and assists alone. He is a supreme organiser off the ball and constantly directing teammates to cover opponents and space.
His tendency to try high risk passes often sees Portugal lose possession and immediately have to defend counter attacks. Santos needs to work on minimising the danger on those occasions.
It’s unrealistic to expect match winning performances every game, but it’s easy to see why Santos persists with the Manchester United playmaker.
Otávio started against Turkey and rewarded Santos with a goal, an assist, and man of the match performance. He has been Porto’s best player for years with his versatility, skill and aggression key attributes that are effective in Santos’ system.
João Mário’s lack of game time at Benfica and the emergence of other options means the 29-year-old could struggle to add to his 50 caps.
Renato Sanches was another absentee in the playoffs, but if he can overcome persistent injuries and be fit and healthy at the right time, he can regain his spot in the starting side.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s tendency to waste time complaining after losing the ball or not being awarded free kicks can become monotonous, but after earning 186 caps and scoring 115 international goals, it’s not something that is expected to change any time soon.
Ronaldo has earned the right to be untouchable, but it would be welcome to see alternative free kick takers and Santos willing to take him off in the closing stages of matches when he is no longer required.
Santos has shown plenty of faith in Diogo Jota who has been keeping João Félix on the bench, two young, world-class forwards with more scope for improvement.
André Silva has different attributes and continues to compete for a spot up front. Rafael Leão and Gonçalo Guedes can start if required but are more suitable in a 4-3-3 formation or offering width and pace off the bench.
Rafa Silva is another useful squad player who can make a difference in any match.
Pedro Neto suffered a serious knee injury in April 2021, less than two weeks after earning his third cap in a substitute appearance in Luxembourg where he registered two assists. He has plenty of time to get back to full fitness and show Santos he deserves a recall.
Fernando Santos & the future
Santos is never going to stop attracting criticism, criticism I and many others find tedious and unrealistic. He said he would walk away if Portugal failed to qualify for the World Cup and you can be assured he will be leading the team in Qatar.
It would take a colossal failure in the UEFA Nations League for the FPF to consider sacking the man they have stood by for so long, not to mention a contract that expires in 2024.
Fernando Santos was trying everything in his power to drive the team forward after they continually retreated against Serbia. Sometimes human psychology in a match situation can override the ability to follow instructions.
This is just one instance of many when players had to take responsibility on the pitch after being put into a position to succeed.
Santos couldn’t have done much more to put Bruno Fernandes into a position to succeed for the Seleção. He might not be brilliant every game, but he is a match winner as proved against North Macedonia.
Many seem to forget or overlook the fact that during Santos' eight years in charge, Portugal have produced one top class central defender.
Pepe made his international debut in 2007. The situation was so dire that Santos called up the aging Ricardo Carvalho and Bruno Alves at Euro 2016.
Santos gave Rúben Dias his debut in 2018, but there haven’t been other realistic options until now with Gonçalo Inácio, Tiago Djaló and David Carmo all coming through simultaneously.
Is it Santos’ fault that a nation which consistently competes and wins titles at youth level has done so without developing high class centre-backs? And that’s not even counting players that were born in Brazil and the former African colonies.
Is it Santos’ fault that Diogo Leite and Diogo Queirós haven’t made the grade, or that previous youth managers including Rui Jorge persisted with that pairing for so long at the expense of Djaló?
Santos has consistently brought youngsters through and given them their chance, as evidenced by promoting Diogo Costa a lot earlier than expected.
Inácio, Djaló and David Carmo are next in line which should give Seleção supporters plenty of optimism that the long standing issues in central defence will finally be overcome.
As I wrote in my bandwagon piece, there are many arguments that can be made for sticking with Santos. More significantly, it’s important to understand why the FPF have stuck by him despite failing to reach the quarter-finals at the 2018 World Cup and 2020 European Championship.
The world has enough negativity in it and I refuse to allow negativity to influence how I perceive Portugal, Santos and their chances of winning a football match or a tournament.
Club connections can make a difference in international football and Portugal have two made in Manchester.
There is absolutely no reason why Portugal can’t win the 2022 World Cup. Luck plays a big role with injuries, form and the draws all playing their part.
If Portugal have a bit of luck, Santos gets his tactics right and players fulfil their potential, they can lift the World Cup trophy on 18 December which would be one of the greatest moments in the history of a nation, and the ultimate achievement for Cristiano Ronaldo.
Key Dates in 2022
UEFA Nations League
2 June - Spain vs Portugal
5 June - Portugal vs Switzerland
9 June - Portugal vs Czech Republic
12 June - Switzerland vs Portugal
24 September - Czech Republic vs Portugal
27 September - Portugal vs Spain
FIFA World Cup
24 November - Portugal vs Ghana
28 November - Portugal vs Uruguay
2 December - Portugal vs Korea Republic
18 December - World Cup final