The UEFA Nations League - and beyond

Portugal to finish the group stage as the World Cup looms large

You can feel it now, can’t you? Excitement percolates. The World Cup crests the horizon, glory awaits… indignity also for those unprepared.

The final significant international football break before the World Cup has descended upon us. Portugal are two key results away from the UNL playoffs. Specifically, a point vs the Czechs and victory over Spain separate Portugal from the semi-finals.

A brief synopsis. Portugal meet a Czech Republic side in reasonably poor form having lost 3 of 6 matches this year. Their hope of qualifying to the semifinals owes largely to their surprising draw against Spain and the even worse form of Switzerland. Portugal was the superior side in June but showed vulnerabilities throughout the match which the Czechs could not exploit.

Spain host Switzerland before the battle-royale in Braga. If they win, one point against Portugal will do. Yet again, Portugal must deliver a big result at home to progress, a requirement which has proven challenging of late.

However, the Seleção’s priority remains World Cup preparation. Portugal’s last outing in Geneva served a poignant reminder this squad and its tactical approach still needs improvement.

The player selection and tactical ingenuity demand on Fernando Santos grows ever larger. Portugal’s midfield remains unsettled. Who starts?

William, Neves, and Pahlinha started the season well. PSG’s midfield contingent demands inclusion as does Wolverhampton’s Matheus Nunes. Otávio and Renato Sanches are injured, and it appears the age of João Moutinho is over. While this does clear some space, I write of his exclusion from the national team with admiration for his many years of service - some of you should consider putting more respect on his name. He won the ball in midfield leading to Eder’s salvific goal in Paris. Never forget. 

And again the grand ritual is upon us – who will be this tournament’s surprise package? Which of our young, talented generation will pull the fabled sword from the stone to inherit Cristiano Ronaldo’s powers? This is not a privileged endowment, or mere passing of the guard. It is an earned right to stake that manner of claim in this Seleção. A squad neatly poised for extraordinary achievement yet so obviously missing the effervescent greatness which has only on rare occasion been summoned by any but the great one himself – for the better part of the last two decades.

How long before one of our own reduces onlookers to muted disbelief by their outrageous ability? As Ronaldo once did. In 2018, I thought that player was Gonçalo Guedes. His tournament was one to forget. More recently, I thought João Félix or Diogo Jota. Neither can maintain fitness or consistency. Most recently, Leão seems a ticking-time bomb. When he finally explodes on the international scene, I do not know, but a player with his turn of pace is conspicuously absent from this side. If he can only stay focused for 90 minutes…. People wail about Cristiano’s inclusion. I lament the adaptive failure of our young starlets.

Yet Cristiano Ronaldo’s situation is also worrisome. Ronaldo’s purpose in this side must change, especially if he cannot get more minutes for Manchester United. His time on the pitch, and how he contributes timely goals is the new imperative. André Silva is struggling again, Diogo Jota has only recently returned from injury, Gonçalo Ramos is the new man on scene, Félix and Leão are in-waiting, but Cristiano remains a most potent weapon if used in the right capacity. 

Ever the alchemist, Fernando Santos did nudge this side closer to the World Cup performance standard we are all desperate to behold during the first four matches of the Nations League. But to realize our true potential, three crucial steps must be taken.

Step 1 – Harness the rage. Santos desperately needed a fit Renato Sanches in this midfield. The Czechs will hardly sit back as they have already shown in this tournament. Spain’s up-tempo passing and press scheme has always given us problems. It gives everyone problems, to be fair. But in recent times, Portugal has been exasperatingly ponderous, a danger which will not go unpunished. For these two matches, Santos needs to field Matheus Nunes alongside Bernardo Silva with Pahlinha the dedicated No.6 plus maybe Vitinha. For the World Cup, Renato Sanches will be needed in midfield.

The only concern? Renato Sanches’ form. His recurring nightmare goes on as he plays second fiddle for European giants PSG.

Step 2 – Promote Tiago Djaló. The Lille defender has been excellent so far this season. Inácio and David Carmo are ripening and deserve call-ups but neither offers the range of skill Djaló possesses. Neither does Domingos Duarte. Danilo is a fine back-up, but this is the last chance to prepare a centreback for the future and Djaló checks almost all the boxes save for one – he has zero caps. It is time to fix that. And while we’re at it, get Gonçalo Ramos some minutes too.

Step 3 – Stop playing afraid. This is not an inconsequential detail. This team is not simply lethargic or tactically disoriented under Santos. They exhibit an observable trepidation. One which the opposition cannot fail to exploit with great enthusiasm. This nation’s footballing spirit must be stirred from its slumber.

Let me be clear. I am not saying this team is too defensive. That we need to sharpen the end of the spear and attack with reckless abandon. My patience long ago expired for those who criticize defensive football. Defense is precisely one half of the game. To perform it with excellence is essential to tournament champion-caliber football. No, this team plays without conviction. Aimless and unsure, frightened and without determination.

This is not a zero-sum game. Playing with self-assurance should not mean exchanging tactical defense for head-down, blunt force offensive assault.

What we need from the Nations League is confidence. Proof this talented squad can rise to the occasion. In 2003, Otto Rehhagel simply told his Greek national team squad they would be champions. The next year, they were – tragically at Portugal’s expense. Fernando Santos articulated a similar message prior to Euro 2016. The players believed him and beat France for the first time ever in the tournament final. I could even feel this energy after Quaresma scored an extra time winner against Croatia match in the R16.

This squad needs to start believing again. Not simply that they are talented enough. They must believe they have what it takes to yield the result needed in every situation. Ghana, Uruguay, and South Korea will physically wear us down in Qatar. We need the mental resilience to adapt and overcome.

This tournament is the last in the Ronaldo-Pepe era. Those not respecting the gargantuan blind leap off a cliff this represents are not paying attention. These two men cannot be expected to deliver the magic of old.

We have serious talent. But these players need evidence they can continue without the old guard to bring them through. They need to create that evidence themselves. Where is the hunger in this generation? The obsessive appetite which Pepe and Ronaldo bring? This World Cup can help change that, or it can solidify a future of underachievement despite lavish individual ability.

Sir Alex Ferguson once said confidence is the only significant discriminator between world class players and ordinary professional footballers. The jig is up. Time for a new generation to get the business done. 

We must play like we belong in the UEFA Nations League semifinals, because we do. Then one friendly, against Nigeria, separates us from that most hallowed of contests, the World Cup. This can be a special year for the Seleção. It must be.

Over to you, Fernando Santos. Make them believe.

by Nathan Motz