Portugal’s qualification campaign for the European Championships 2024 started exactly as the Seleção would have hoped and, to be honest, exactly how it really should have started.
With Portugal now 8 to 1 on to emerge top of the group, wins over the group’s minnows will not get fans rushing to place their bets with the numerous bookmaker offers available, but as the saying goes, you can only beat the side in front of you.
After a disappointing exit from the Qatar World Cup against Morocco when hopes were high of a semi-final appearance at least, and the promise of a refresh and rebuild, all of course under new manager Roberto Martínez, it was crucial that this campaign started smoothly.
The potential banana skins were not only avoided but, with ten unanswered goals, including six against and improved Luxembourg, it provides a base from which the Seleção can build a decisive qualification campaign.
The main takeaway from the double-header was the implementation of a 3-4-3 formation, something former manager Fernando Santos never experimented with. Trickier matches lay ahead, so let’s examine exactly what sort of task Martínez and his young dynamic side will be faced with.
The Teams in Group J
With the top two in each group qualifying automatically (plus three more teams qualifying through a play-off system), things would have to go very wrong for Portugal not to book their place in Germany next summer. With an expanded tournament, qualification was always going to be slightly easier, but it cannot be denied that the draw has been favourable for the Seleção.
As well as Liechtenstein and Luxembourg (ranked 199th and 91st in the world, respectively), Martínez’s team will face Slovakia (ranked 51st), Bosnia and Herzegovina (ranked 57th), and Iceland (ranked 64th). To put that into perspective, Portugal’s current world ranking is 9th.
Other results in the group have not only thrown up some shocks, but have also been kind to Portugal. Their rivals have dropped points against one another and no clear team has emerged from the chasing pack. Bosnia and Herzegovina impressed with an opening 3-0 victory against Iceland, only to follow that up with a 2-0 defeat in Slovakia, a side that had limped to a goalless home draw against Luxembourg in their opening fixture. Iceland followed up the defeat in Bosnia by getting their first points with a routine but clinical 7-0 win away to Liechtenstein.
The two games in June will be a sterner test but still one that should result in six points, four at the very least, and it will be the first true indication of what a Martínez’s Portugal looks like against (slightly) stronger opposition. On 17 June, they welcome Bosnia and Herzegovina, before traveling to Iceland three days later.
Matchdays five and six are games away to Slovakia and at home against Luxembourg in the second week of September. The penultimate pair of games on 13 and 16 October are versus Slovakia in Lisbon and away in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The qualification matches are completed in November with games in Liechtenstein and at home to Iceland on 16 and 19 November.
More than Qualification
This campaign means more than merely booking a place in the finals. It gives a chance for the new coach to find and bed in his favoured way of playing. As mentioned earlier, Martínez seems set on using a 3-4-3 system. It gives young centre-backs such as Gonçalo Inácio and António Silva the opportunity to step up and try and recreate their impressive club form on the international arena.
A more attacking mindset will also give the team and squad as a whole time to find a new belief in themselves, so that if and when they do kick off in Germany in a little over twelve months’ time, they do so not with the scars of previous tournaments fresh in their minds, but with the confidence of a dominant qualification campaign behind them.
One task that is also pivotal in these games is to establish the role that Cristiano Ronaldo has within the team. Euro 24 could very well be the captain’s last international tournament. In Qatar, Santos made the brave decision to drop him from the starting eleven. There is no doubt he has a role to play, either from the bench or as a starter, but either way, Martínez has to ensure that Ronaldo is a benefit not a distraction.
Whether any or all of these questions will be answered we will have to wait and see. The downside of a relatively straightforward (on paper at least) group is that the side will not be tested in the way that they undoubtedly will be in Germany. It is only then that we will see if Portugal has indeed moved forward.