Portugal took a big step towards qualifying for the 2024 European Championship after beating Slovakia 1-0 in Bratislava.
Lukás Haraslín hit the post in the 42nd minute and it proved to be the turning point with the hosts duly punished a minute later.
Bruno Fernandes scored the decisive goal on his 29th birthday, the playmaker racing into the box and beating Martin Dúbravka from a difficult angle.
The game opened up in the second half but Slovakia were unable to take their chances, the Seleção making it five straight wins without conceding under Roberto Martínez to go five points clear at the top of Group J.
PortuGOAL’s Matthew Marshall reports from Štadión Tehelné pole.
Fast start in Bratislava
Portugal got off to a great start in Bratislava with João Palhinha’s long passing range on display, Diogo Dalot latching onto one and giving the ball to Vitinha who dragged his effort wide.
Slovakia were attempting to break through Portugal’s defence with long balls, particularly out wide into the channels to isolate João Cancelo and Diogo Dalot. Peter Pekarik was finding space down the right wing, presenting a chance for Robert Polievka who scuffed his shot straight at Diogo Costa.
Portugal got sloppy which saw the hosts grow in confidence, another long ball picking out Ivan Schranz who maintained possession, the ball eventually falling to Lukás Haraslín who saw his shot deflected wide.
Denis Vavro then coughed up possession on the edge of his own box, Bruno Fernandes caught between passing to Ronaldo and shooting, eventually hitting a weak shot straight at Martin Dúbravka.
Haraslín hits the post
The momentum kept shifting with Rúben Dias making an important challenge to deny Haraslín who raced through on goal. The Sparta Prague winger was then presented with a great chance by Pekarik, his shot clipping the outside of the post.
Slovakia paid the price for their profligacy less than 60 seconds later.
Bruno Fernandes does it himself
Bruno Fernandes was struggling to make an impact on proceedings but that changed dramatically on the stroke of half-time. Drifting out to the right wing, he received a pass from Bernardo Silva and raced past some feeble defence before beating Dúbravka from a difficult angle.
Both teams continued to gift opportunities to each other, Palhinha preventing Haraslín from shooting and Bernardo Silva unable to find the net from long range after a picking up a loose pass from Dúbravka.
The second half started with João Cancelo, who had been spending plenty of time in the middle of the pitch, racing through and shooting straight at Dúbravka.
Slovakia continued to create opportunities but were lacking the sufficient quality to convert. Pekarik got forward and shot straight at Costa, Schranz then dragging his shot well wide after being sent through by Ondrej Duda.
Ronaldo gets involved
Ronaldo had a great chance to score in the 61st minute but was unable to connect cleanly, Dúbravka spilling his weak shot before the Portuguese captain was booked for clashing with the goalkeeper in an attempt to convert the rebound.
Roberto Martínez made a triple switch in the 63rd minute with Nélson Semedo, Otávio and Pedro Neto replacing Cancelo, Vitinha and Rafael Leão. Francesco Calzona made two changes up front with Toma Suslov and Robert Boženík replacing Schranz and the ineffective Polievka.
More opportunities came Ronaldo’s way, the first deflected straight to Dúbravka and the second off target after some clever build up play between Fernandes and Bernardo Silva.
The back and forth pattern of the match persisted with Slovakia going close at the other end, Haraslín’s free kick picking out Milan Škriniar who headed over the bar from close range.
Calzona went to his bench again in the 75th minute when he introduced László Bénes for Juraj Kucka.
Ronaldo seemed destined to score with all the chances seemingly coming his way, Fernandes finding his captain who shot straight at Dúbravka from a tight angle.
The game had opened up with Calzona emptiying his bench in the 83rd minute, David Ďuriš and Patrik Hrošovský replacing Stanislav Lobottka and Haraslín.
Slovakia were unable to break through however with António Silva finishing the game strong and nullifying most of their threats. Bénes had the final chance from a free kick, the substitute firing the ball straight into Ronaldo’s head.
The writing was on the wall in Bratislava with the match essentially playing out as expected. Slovakia have become hard to beat under Francesco Calzona but this was their biggest test yet.
The Italian manager can no longer rely on influential midfielder Marek Hamšík who retired after earning a record 26 goals and 138 caps.
That means Slovakia's strength is in defence, Milan Škriniar and Dávid Hancko leading the way and Stanislav Lobotka protecting the back four in the holding midfield role. The hosts got players back to help their full-backs which made them hard to break through, a tactic we are repeatedly seeing used against Portugal.
Lukás Haraslín hit the post and tried hard up front with Róbert Bozeník seeing plenty of the ball after being introduced, but Calzona's side lacked composure and quality in the final third which was ultimately their downfall.
Bruno Fernandes has been be the difference maker for Portugal under Roberto Martínez and it was the case once again here. The playmaker scored from a seemingly impossible angle, a great way to celebrate his 29th birthday and another reminder how important he is for the Seleção.
Vitinha got his first start under Martínez who switched from a back three to a back four. João Cancelo spent a lot of time in the middle of the pitch and hardly got forward to support Rafael Leão down the left wing, the AC Milan winger surely one of the most talented and frustrating players in football.
Pedro Neto returned to the senior side after last appearing in March 2021, the winger regaining his confidence and form after a knee and ankle injury kept him out of the game for over a year.
Martínez couldn’t have asked for a better start to his spell in charge but there is still much to work on, primarily improving in transition once they lose possession and defending long balls. Superior sides than Slovakia will take their chances.
Portugal host Luxembourg at Estádio do Algarve on Monday evening, Ronaldo suspended after picking up his third yellow card of the campaign.
Slovakia: Martin Dúbravka, Peter Pekarík, Denis Vavro, Milan Škriniar, Dávid Hancko, Juraj Kucka (Laszlo Benes, 75’), Stanislav Lobotka (David Duris, 83’), Ondrej Duda, Ivan Schranz (Tomas Suslov, 63’), Róbert Polievka (Róbert Bozeník, 63’), Lukáš Haraslín (Patrik Hrosovsky, 83)
Unused substitutes: M. Tomič, M. Valjent, H. Ravas, V. De Marco, M. Rodák, N. Gyömbér, M. Bero
Portugal: Diogo Costa, Diogo Dalot, Rúben Dias, António Silva, João Cancelo (Nélson Semedo, 63’), Bernardo Silva, João Palhinha, Bruno Fernandes, Vitinha (Otávio, 63’), Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Leão (Pedro Neto, 63’)
Unused substitutes: Rui Patrício, José Sá, Gonçalo Inácio, Toti Gomes, Danilo Pereira, Ricardo Horta, Gonçalo Ramos, João Félix, Diogo Jota
[0-1] Bruno Fernandes, 43’