Portugal coach Fernando Santos admitted that the injury to FC Porto’s defensive midfielder, Danilo, has forced him to change his plans about the makeup of the squad that will be representing the Seleção at the Russia World Cup, starting on 14 June.
Santos yesterday gave a simultaneous interview to Portugal’s three daily sports papers, A Bola, Record and O Jogo, in which he revealed he had planned to take just three centre-backs to the tournament, opening up space for an extra midfielder.
The unavailability of Danilo, who could cover at centre-back, has scuppered that idea and probably ends the chances of Rony Lopes or Manuel Fernandes making the plane.
“We have no other player who can play as a midfielder or a centre-back, like Danilo could, so I’ll have to take eight defenders,” said Santos. “I was initially thinking of taking seven defenders, seven midfielders and six forwards, but now it will be 8-6-6.”
The logical conclusion is that Rúben Neves will be included in Danilo’s place, which is not a huge surprise given the season he produced at Wolves and the way he acquitted himself in the recent friendly against Egypt. Indeed, later in the interview Santos all but confirmed the youngster’s place in the squad by saying, “Rúben (Neves) is a strong contender to be in the 23-man squad, but he is not a clone of Danilo. This means I’ll have to leave somebody out who I was planning on taking.”
The centre-back position continues the subject of much debate among Seleção fans and in the media. Repeating his response to a question put to him by PortuGOAL in March, Santos reiterated that Benfica’s Jardel and Galatasaray’s Maicon, two Brazilian-born central defenders who have recently acquired Portuguese citizenship, would not be included. “Pepe and Deco made their Portugal debuts when they were still very young, which helped their integration. If Jardel and Maicon were 20 or 21 years old, maybe I would select them,” he explained.
The 63-year-old added that the fact Benfica centre-back Rúben Dias missed Portugal’s last set of friendlies does not rule him out of being on the plane to Moscow. “There is a high likelihood that there will be players in the 35-man pre-selected squad who have never played for Portugal. I don’t think that will be a surprise. I’m talking about players who have played for the youth teams but not the senior team yet.”
Santos admitted the lack of playing time of several players who were crucial during the triumphant Euro 2016 campaign is a concern: “João Mário, for example, was a long time without playing at Inter, but he’s playing more regularly at West Ham now, and it’s true that there are a lot of Seleção players who are not playing as frequently as I’d like.” However, the Seleção coach pointed out this negative is offset by the positive in terms of the emergence of fresh options. “There are several players who were not at the Euro and who are now in the running for the World Cup squad, such as Gelson, Bernardo Silva, André Silva and Gonçalo Guedes, who have come on a lot.”
Santos said he plans to announce the 23-man squad on 17 May, although it is possible the announcement will be put back until after the Portuguese Cup final (20 May). He added he will be repeating the method used ahead of Euro 2016 and will not be naming a larger squad before trimming it down. “I had the experience (as Greece manager) of calling up 25 players and then dropping two and it wasn’t good. For two or three days there was a gloomy, tense atmosphere. I’ll try to avoid this situation if possible.”
By Tom Kundert