Portugal begin the quest for their first U21 European Championship trophy on Saturday when they face Serbia in Bydgoszcz.
This squad is full of experience, with seven players survivors from the squad that lost to Sweden in the final on penalties two years ago at this tournament, in addition to five players who have been capped at senior level.
Manager Rui Jorge is also back for a second attempt at glory, and Portugal are the only squad in the tournament who can boast a European Champion at senior level in their midst: Renato Sanches.
Nevertheless, Rui Jorge rejected the favourites tag and insisted the squad cannot underestimate their opponents. “We have quality but our opponents do as well. It’s a very difficult competition. At this point, being favourites matters little to us,” he said.
In their first match, the Seleção face a Serbian team that is also on a high, having won at the U20 World Cup two years ago. Several players from that squad will feature at this tournament including Benfica winger Andrija Živković. Serbia qualified via a playoff, beating Norway.
In addition, Portugal will have to contend with four-time champions at this level Spain (20 June) and tournament debutants Macedonia (23 June), who knocked out France in Group B. Only the winners of the three groups qualify directly for the semi-finals on 27 June, plus one second-place finisher.
Rui Jorge has had to deal with some controversy of his own making even before the tournament begins. After originally selecting 25 players for pre-tournament training camp, he dropped Rony Lopes and Tomas Podstawski from the final squad.
Lopes’ omission came as a surprise to many including the player himself. The Lille winger was expected to be one of Portugal’s most important players in Poland, having finished the season strongly.
“These are the types of decisions managers have to make. Leaving players out is always difficult for me personally and for the players themselves. Rony Lopes and Tomás [Podstawski] have a lot of quality and showed it. But, we looked at the balance of the squad and decided to leave them out,” Rui Jorge said after the announcement.
Portugal are stacked with attacking prowess which they abundantly demonstrated in qualifying, scoring 34 goals while conceding only five in 10 matches on their way to an undefeated record (eight wins, two draws). Only Germany (35) scored more goals in qualifying.
Projected starting XI (4-3-3):
João Cancelo, Figueiredo, Semedo, Rodrigues
Neves, Sanches, Bruno Fernandes
Guedes, Bruma, Gonçalo Paciência
Five Portugal players to watch out for
After Bruma’s 2013 move from Sporting to Galatasaray, many fans questioned whether the mercurial winger would reach his potential. After a lukewarm first two years in Turkey, followed by an equally tepid time in Spain on loan at Real Sociedad, Bruma finally broke through this past season. Playing a huge role in Galatasaray’s team, Bruma scored 11 and added six assists. Red Bull Leipzig signed the winger for just over €12million this week which will mean Champions League football for the 22-year-old next season.
Stellar performances in his debut season for Benfica earned him a €35million move to Bayern Munich, which was followed by a starring role in Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph. But despite all the anticipation, Sanches’ first season in Bavaria amounted to little more than subdued substitute appearances, with fans and media alike questioning the move. Bayern’s recent signing of Corentin Tolisso from Lyon has cast even more doubts as to whether Sanches will stay at the German giants. An excellent performance in this tournament will go a long way to proving those people wrong.
Much was expected of Neves when he made his senior debut for Porto at 17 and one season later became the youngest club captain in Champions League history. Since then, his career trajectory has slowed somewhat but now he is expected to play a major role in this team. Neves has been praised for his leadership qualities, positional sense and an impressive range of passing. He has been linked with a move to the Premier League and a fine performance could see a move materialise, especially considering Porto’s financial worries.
Guedes’ progression in the first half of this past season earned him a January move to French giants Paris St-Germain for €25 million where he was used sparingly. Nominally a winger, he has played as a second striker at times as well. His versatility and laudable work-rate should mean he sees plenty of action in this tournament. Like Sanches, his situation at club level has left him with something to prove.
One of the brightest young attacking fullbacks in world football. Cancelo has had a good start to his career with the senior Seleção (scoring in his first three games for the full Portugal team) and would probably be at the Confederations Cup if not for Nelson Semedo being a year older. He will provide attacking prowess on the right side, likely overlapping with Portugal’s right winger, although he does have room to grow on the defensive side of his game. Cancelo has been linked with a move to Barcelona.
Portugal’s U21 European Championship squad in full
Goalkeepers: Bruno Varela (Vitória Setúbal), Joel Pereira (Manchester United) and Miguel Silva (Vitória Guimarães)
Defenders: Fernando Fonseca (FC Porto), Pedro Rebocho (Moreirense), Kevin Rodrigues (Real Sociedad), João Cancelo (Valencia), Edgar Ié (Belenenses), Rúben Semedo (Sporting) and Tobias Figueiredo (Sporting)
Midfielders: Rúben Neves (FC Porto), Francisco Ramos (FC Porto), Renato Sanches (Bayern Munich), Francisco Geraldes (Sporting), João Carvalho (Benfica), Bruno Fernandes (Sampdoria)
Forwards: Daniel Podence (Sporting), Diogo Jota (FC Porto), Gonçalo Guedes (Paris St Germain), Iuri Medeiros (Sporting), Bruma (Leipzig), Ricardo Horta (Braga) and Gonçalo Paciência (Rio Ave)