To say European Championship 2024 qualification has been a breeze so far for Portugal would be an understatement. The Seleção have won all six of their Group J matches thus far, racking up 24 goals in the process and conceding zero.
Victory against Slovakia at the Estádio do Dragão in Porto tomorrow will seal Portugal’s place in Germany next summer with three matches to spare.
Nevertheless, coach Roberto Martínez expects a tough assignment. “If we analyse the game in Bratislava, Slovakia were better than us in the first half,” he said.
“It wasn’t that Portugal played badly. Slovakia were very aggressive without the ball. They closed down our passing lanes. We had a tough time, but in the second half we were better.”
Ronaldo available again
The 1-0 win against Slovakia was followed by a 9-0 hammering of Luxembourg in the Algarve, leaving Martínez with some interesting selection choices. Cristiano Ronaldo did not start the second match as he was serving a suspension, but it would be a surprise if the Spaniard did not pick the captain in the initial XI tomorrow.
“There is always a lot of talk about the starting eleven, but five substitutions can be made and then there’s the game against Bosnia on Monday. This is very important for me,” said Martínez.
“We are focused to be at the top of our game tomorrow. There are no easy games; that goes without saying. We’ve won six matches because our players have shown the right attitude and exceptional commitment. This provides the framework to show their talent.”
Two players who will not take part in either match are Braga forward Ricardo Horta and Bayern Munich left-back Raphaël Guerreiro. Both were selected for the double encounter but had to pull out of the squad because of injury.
João Neves “born to play for the Seleção”
One player who may feature, though, is an emerging star of Portuguese football João Neves. The Benfica midfielder was called up to the senior squad for the first time and the 19-year-old has wasted no time in impressing the national team coach.
“I think João Neves was born to play football. He was born to play for the Seleção,” gushed Martínez.
“What I’ve seen is a player who is a complete natural and is enjoying every minute. I really like his energy, his professionalism and his confidence. It’s as if it isn’t his first training camp [with the national team] and this is a sign of a player with huge potential for a world-class level.”
Predicted starting XI v Slovakia (4-2-3-1):
Diogo Costa, Diogo Dalot, Rúben Dias, Gonçalo Inácio, João Cancelo, João Palhinha, Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota, Rafael Leão, Cristiano Ronaldo
By Tom Kundert