Sandwiched between Portugal’s greatest moment in international football - the Euro 2016 triumph - and a World Cup where the Seleção can legitimately aspire to at least equal their best finishes (3rd in 1966 and 4th in 2006), is the Confederations Cup, which begins this weekend.
Portugal have taken their strongest possible squad to Russia and coach Fernando Santos is keen to maintain the winning habit. “We came here with the natural ambition of a team that wants to win the tournament,” he said upon arrival in Kazan on Wednesday evening.
Opinion is divided as to the wisdom of Portugal going to the tournament with their first-line options, with many arguing it was the perfect opportunity to experiment new faces.
And Portugal legend Rui Costa openly criticised the very existence of the competition last week, saying it was putting too much strain on the already overloaded schedule of many of the world’s top players.
When asked to comment on Costa’s thoughts, Santos diplomatically replied: “that’s not a question you can ask the Portugal coach. It’s a question for other institutions to answer. My job is to prepare the Portugal team.”
Santos has proven in his tenure so far that he gives short shrift to any ‘negative noise’ surrounding the Seleção, focusing solely on winning. And with captain Cristiano Ronaldo’s well-known incapacity to take his foot off the pedal, it is fair to assume that Portugal will be well and truly up for adding more silverware to their trophy cabinet.
The European champions open their campaign against Mexico on Sunday. With hosts Russia their next opponents (New Zealand complete the group), a good result against the CONCACAF Gold Cup holders could be key to set Portugal on their way to a successful tournament.
It would therefore be no surprise if Santos repeated an almost identical line-up to the starters chosen against Latvia in the World Cup qualifier last Friday. Centre-back Pepe has still not looked 100% fit in training, while Bernardo Silva could get the nod over Gelson Martins, who disappointed in his first competitive start for the full national team against Latvia.
Fernando Santos’s reluctance to make use of Bernardo Silva despite his magnificent season for Monaco has been debated at length in Portugal, and from an individual point of view the new Manchester City man could have more to gain from this tournament than anybody. (PortuGOAL correspondent Nathan Motz discusses “the Bernardo Silva conundrum” and other Seleção talking points here)
Portugal’s predicted XI v Mexico (4-4-2):
Cédric Soares, Bruno Alves, José Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro
Bernardo Silva, William Carvalho, João Moutinho, André Gomes
André Silva, Cristiano Ronaldo
Portugal debuts in Confederations Cup
It is the first time Portugal has played in a tournament that has been running since 1992. Originally an invitation competition staged in Saudi Arabia, at the turn of the millennium it was expanded and now serves as a dress rehearsal for the World Cup, and is played every four years, one year in advance of the planet’s biggest sporting event.
The 8-team tournament involves the champions of the six football federations around the world, the host country and the reigning world champions.
Although striving to make history for the second summer running, should the Seleção not lift the cup in the final in Saint Petersburg on 2 July, they can take some solace. The Confederations Cup winners have never gone on to win the following year’s World Cup.
by Tom Kundert