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

Comments (16)

This comment was minimized by the moderator on the site

Sorry to be negative but I'm predicting more flat performances and eventual failure both to progress in the Nations League and in the World Cup. I dearly hope I am wrong but the performances in qualifying and in the last Euros were unacceptable...

Sorry to be negative but I'm predicting more flat performances and eventual failure both to progress in the Nations League and in the World Cup. I dearly hope I am wrong but the performances in qualifying and in the last Euros were unacceptable in my humble opinion. Just hope we get shot of Santolas as soon as possible after the World Cup and bring someone in with some new ideas. Ronaldo needs to be benched but we know it will be him +10 for every minute of every game no matter whether he plays well or not.

We have the talent to produce much more than we have shown since 2016 and Santos' credit has to run out sooner or later.

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Santos
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Coming to the World Cup, the team which have clear conviction of winning the trophy will be the Champions, if you have a slight doubt about yourself, then you can kiss the chance of winning the cup goodbye. What giving me a lot of confidence is...

Coming to the World Cup, the team which have clear conviction of winning the trophy will be the Champions, if you have a slight doubt about yourself, then you can kiss the chance of winning the cup goodbye. What giving me a lot of confidence is Santos' objective. Soon after getting knocked out of Euros, Santos said, they will now focus on World Cup and winning it. Even in the latest interview, he expressed the same desire. Cristiano also has a dream of winning it. I could get the same vibes from Cancelo and Bernardo Silva. Vitinha said Portugal are one of the favourites. It's good to hear such ambitions from our players.

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Nishanth Dsouza
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With Santos we will sit back hope for draws and lucky wins. Should have let him go after the Euros we have an incredible squad with a manager stuck in the 90s . Credit for 2016 even thiugh we were lucky but id take that luck again! But with...

With Santos we will sit back hope for draws and lucky wins. Should have let him go after the Euros we have an incredible squad with a manager stuck in the 90s . Credit for 2016 even thiugh we were lucky but id take that luck again! But with Santos I doubt we make it past the quarters

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Bryan Cabral
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Analisado perfeitamente bem Sr Nathan

Neville
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Fantastic article Nathan! Spot on I agree with you on everything you said!

We can do this! I'm very happy with our squad and all of our players I think will come into this with that passion to make amends and at this point they can come in...

Fantastic article Nathan! Spot on I agree with you on everything you said!

We can do this! I'm very happy with our squad and all of our players I think will come into this with that passion to make amends and at this point they can come in confidently knowing they are the best players in the world! We can come in hungry and confidently and play our best and go for it all! Forca Portugal!

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Eddie
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Let‘s skip the Nations League and put some straight talk referring to upcoming WC 2022:

I made an estimation on the probabilities of 6 possible scenarios for Portugal at the WC in Qatar. And it shows, that the probability of the two...

Let‘s skip the Nations League and put some straight talk referring to upcoming WC 2022:

I made an estimation on the probabilities of 6 possible scenarios for Portugal at the WC in Qatar. And it shows, that the probability of the two least-preferred scenarios together is at 59% (!). The probability of Portugal winning the trophy (7%) comes from the current odds that are dealt.

Of course the question has to be: Why the heck this order from Best Case” to “Worst Case”? That’s of course a very valid question. Most likely the order between position 4 and 5 in the table might be controversial. Why should it be better to crash out in the group stage than in the quarter finals? There’s an explanation for this order: When I defined it, I took into respect, that fans and pundits around the Portuguese national team are quite in agreement, that this is the most talented generation of players ever. And if this assumption is mutual amongst most of the interested and involved people, the definition of a successful WC must be “Portugal makes it to the semis”. As a consequence, every result below that bar has to be assessed under the premise what scenario provides the biggest chances, that this generation will harvest from their talent at the next occasion (Euro 24).

In brackets: Estimated probability in %.

Best case: World Champion (7%)
2nd best case: Runner-up (9%)
3rd best case: Semi final (13%)
4th best case: Out in group stage, Santos sent off (12%)
5th best case: Out in quarter final, Santos stays (32%)
Worst case: Out in round of 16, Santos stays (27%)

Of course this is only naked numbers. It does not take in respect, if for example Portugal would crash out in the quarter finals while performing excellently there against a giant like Germany, France, or Brazil etc. Such an “unlucky but heroic” out could of course be seen a success – but this could only be after the match has been played, never before. And this comment is about prognostics.

Cheers

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Rolf Gerber
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Hey Rolf,

I honestly hope that we get a good run, and nothing would thrill me more than winning the WC. The time to get rid of Santos was the day after our loss to Belgium, but since that did not happen, all we can do is ride the "Pray to...

Hey Rolf,

I honestly hope that we get a good run, and nothing would thrill me more than winning the WC. The time to get rid of Santos was the day after our loss to Belgium, but since that did not happen, all we can do is ride the "Pray to Fatima" Express and hope for a miracle.

While Portugal's last few games have been positive since having to make the WC play-off, I don't know what to think since Santos seems to roll different dice every game. Let's just say, if by some miracle, we were to win the WC, I would be first to help chisel the Fernando Santos bronze statue.

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Chris
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Haha… well said, Chris. It would indeed be a miracle, since Santos doesn‘t have a plan. This is so obvious. Anyway - let‘s hope for the best

Rolf Gerber
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Everyone better clear the lines at Fatima in October for Fernando to go and get his inspiration before the tournament.

Chris
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Fernantos™ is not the man to galvanize this generation. I've lost all my appetite watching him lead this team. Imagine how the players feel.

This isn't the Ronaldo, Pepe era. They're just immortals at this point. This generation belongs to...

Fernantos™ is not the man to galvanize this generation. I've lost all my appetite watching him lead this team. Imagine how the players feel.

This isn't the Ronaldo, Pepe era. They're just immortals at this point. This generation belongs to Bernardo, Cancelo, Fernandes, Guerreiro, etc.

Bernardo national career hasn't even surpassed Moutinho's legacy. Moutinho is a Euro Semi-finalist & winner while Bernardo never passed the round of 16. What an embarassment for such a highly rated professional but of course I place most of that blame on Santos. He belongs on a world XI. This will probably his final best moment to truly show out.

João Felix is quite possibly the most overhyped player in world football. I am eager to see him flourish but under these two potato head coaches, I'd rather turn off the TV.

Then there's Leão.. he's tall, strong, and a great dribbler. The next savior of Portugal but if you watch him at Milan he's a pop-up performer. He needs to develop his football IQ, learn how to better combine with teammates and actually demand the ball before he can be considered an automatic starter.

I think the problem with Portugal is not enough tall, physically strong guys who are also natural talents. Palhinha despite his recent wonder goal is not known for being a good long range shooter or distribution specialist.

So I'd personally go back to what used to be traditional Portugal system. Based strictly on talent and not height nor physicality. Two traditional wingers Leão, Neto (hope he regains himself) then Ronaldo still needs a CF to partner up top which leaves only two in the middle Bernardo and Vitinha if we are to maintain a back four. Yes, I'd rather be excellent on one end of the pitch and try to outscore the opponent then to "balance out" the team and continue to rely Mr. Ronnie running out of time to bail us out over and over while we play safe until we're already losing.

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SupremoGino
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Wait a minute..... Did you just trademark 'Fernantos'??? Lol, gold Jerry, gold.

Chris
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haha Chris, I'm glad you liked it. Just saying whatever I can to offset the misery of another Portugal elimination in the Round of 16.

SupremoGino
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Sadly, only an endless stream of Super Bock will do the trick for that.

Chris
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It's hard to be optimistic about our chances of making a deep run given what we've seen from Santos over the last few years, but at least we have been granted a reasonably straight forward group. If we manage to top the group, we'll likely face...

It's hard to be optimistic about our chances of making a deep run given what we've seen from Santos over the last few years, but at least we have been granted a reasonably straight forward group. If we manage to top the group, we'll likely face one of Switzerland or Serbia in the round of 16. Then Spain, Germany, or Belgium in the quarterfinals.

We have the talent on paper to go all the way. We have world class players in just about every position and in certain areas of the pitch we have depth that even the biggest sides in international football would envy. The problem is that Fernando Santos has failed to build a team that successfully maximizes the particular strengths of the players he has at his disposal. We do not have a clear identity, we do not play as a cohesive unit consistently, and I think it's quite clear that he has no idea what his strongest 11 is.

There's also the Ronaldo question. Does he expect to play every minute at every game? If so, I see him as more of a problem than an asset at this point. He's still the first person I'd call up for the flight to Qatar, but he needs to acknowledge that at this point in his career, he can't expect to be immune to time on the bench. I don't see us winning a world cup without him as no one else on the squad has proved to be anywhere near as clinical as our star man, nor anywhere near as clutch. I just hope we use this not so secret weapon intelligently.

It'll be interesting to see how Santos approaches these games against the Czech Republic and Spain. Does Ronaldo start? If so, who is his partner? Jota has been the preferred option over the past couple of years, but he hasn't played much this season due to injury. Felix has elite talent, yet hasn't been able to even come close to showcasing that in a Portugal shirt. Leao as Nathan stated is an absolute monster just waiting to be unleashed but he too hasn't really been able to make a starting spot his own.

Bruno Fernandes more often than not is better than giving the ball to his opponents than actually doing anything productive, but he will still likely start alongside Bernardo who is then moved out of his best position to the right.

William is a favorite of Santos and I'd put my money on him being a starter baring injury - not just over the next couple of games but also in the world cup.

The #6 role is likely down to Neves and Palhinha - two very different skillsets.

I think our back four + keeper is the only sector that's pretty much set in stone: Cancelo, Pepe, Dias, Mendes, and Diogo Costa.

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jon/usa
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I will have hope if on Saturday if I see Pepe, Joao Moutinho, and Ronaldo all sitting on the bench, but I doubt it. Pepe and Joao are obviously to old to be playing while keeping the younger talent on the bench. We have Ruben Dias as the new...

I will have hope if on Saturday if I see Pepe, Joao Moutinho, and Ronaldo all sitting on the bench, but I doubt it. Pepe and Joao are obviously to old to be playing while keeping the younger talent on the bench. We have Ruben Dias as the new leader so let him partner up with an upcoming younger CB. Ronaldo has done nothing this season to warrant starting or even being on the bench. I agree with some of the previous comments about crashing out of both tournaments. Santos has no clue or a plan B when needed. Basically got lucking in 2016 and should have been let go afterwards. He will continue to play his scared boring game plan and go with the old players. Teams will exploit this like Germany did in the last euros. Hopefully after crashing out, Santos will finally get his walking papers and replaced by a more modern game minded manager, but again I doubt it....

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anti-santos
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I say, experiment here in these two qualifying games, if you get in you get in if not... the World Cup is a much bigger ticket item. A trophy our king Ronaldo has not owned, nor the country of Portugal for that matter. Our team is getting older,...

I say, experiment here in these two qualifying games, if you get in you get in if not... the World Cup is a much bigger ticket item. A trophy our king Ronaldo has not owned, nor the country of Portugal for that matter. Our team is getting older, yet there is new talent in the wings. Time to experiment. Use these games to. Thats my opinion.

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Jerrold Hewson
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