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Who Should Portugal Blame for World Cup Exit?
Aaron Rogan
Aaron Rogan
July 1, 2018
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Before becoming a Sports Journalist for Free Super Tips, Aaron spent three years studying Sports Journalism at the University of Sunderland while taking in the Black Cats' 'glory years' under Martin O'Neill. Now back in Northern Ireland he turns niche stats into predictions for FST, while he's one of the few people on this island who is equally comfortable at Windsor Park and the Aviva.

Portugal should have been major contenders in Russia on paper. They were the first European champions in 20 years to play a World Cup in their home continent. They boasted the current Balon d’Or winner, and the standout player from the season’s Champions League. On top of that. Cristiano Ronaldo has been the top scorer in Europe’s top competition for six straight years.

It was all blending towards a successful summer for the Selecao. They had the basis of the 2016 side. Younger players were pushing for places. The mix seemed right, the overall quality of the team improved over the last two years, and then Portugal crashed out at the second round.

Their defeat to Uruguay marked an early exit for the Portuguese. They went out 2-1 after an Edinson Cavani double, with Pepe’s strike the consolation. We’re looking back over Portugal’s defeat, to see where things went wrong for them in Russia.

Also see: Portugal’s Best and Worst Players at the World Cup

Rare Change Backfires on Santos

Fernando Santos isn’t usually a manager to make big changes. He tends to stick with many of his own men, with stars needing a prolonged period of form to force their way in to the side. The Selecao boss did make a rare change on Saturday night, as he introduced new Leciester signing Ricardo Pereira at right-back. Cedric Soares was left out, despite featuring throughout the group stage and in every knockout round in France.

Soares’ last action was to give away the penalty which saw Iran equalise. That put Portugal in to the tougher half of the draw, but it was a controversial decision. The Southampton man was arguably hard done by, while his replacement was the worst player on the pitch for the Portuguese. He was suspect defensively, making him a poor replacement for the usually reliable Soares.

Portugal’s night didn’t fall apart due to one change. However, they certainly didn’t benefit from the switch. Going for a more adventurous choice out wide looks like the wrong choice in hindsight. After winning the Euros through defensive stability, risking that in their first knockout clash was a risk that didn’t pay off.

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Uruguay Joy on the Right

Portugal celebrating their win over Switzerland in World Cup 2018 qualifying

Arguably, Santos made changes on the wrong flank. While Ricardo Pereira came in and struggled. Sticking with the out of form Raphael Guerreiro didn’t go well either. The left-flank was particularly weak, with Joao Mario failing to provide adequate cover. That was an issue we’d already pointed out in this Portugal set-up, leaving too much work for the injury-prone Borussia Dortmund man.

Pereira was still at fault for both goals, but his fellow full-back had a big hand in that. Uruguay’s early opener came from a move which started on their right-hand side. Cavani was in acres of room to start the move, before he got in to the box and headed in the cross. Guerreiro was the man who failed to mark the PSG forward, and that led to Portugal’s gameplan being ripped up six minutes in.

Again, Guerreiro struggled for the second. He stood off the run of Rodrigo Bentancur, who played it to Cavani. There were little cover for Guerreiro from Joao Mario on either goal, as he tucked in to make a midfield three. That tactic does have its merits, but sticking with it through Euro 2016 and the Confederations Cup may have exposed their biggest weakness. That seemed clear against Uruguay, given that they sent 51% of their attacks down the right.

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Portugal Defenders Deliver Before Departing

Pepe Celebrates as Portugal Qualify for the 2018 World Cup

Portugal’s full-backs were both poor, leaving the defence they relied upon in 2016 below par. However, their centre-halves went from strength to strength in Russia. Both Pepe and Jose Fonte were really poor in the opener against Spain, but they’ve been impressive ever since. The duo returned the Portuguese defence back to its best in their final two group games.

That form carried on in the knockout game, with the pair looking solid at the heart of the defence. Pepe scored Portugal’s goal, and Fonte was close to scoring a second equaliser late on. The pair finished the tournament on a high note, despite coming in with questions over their ability.

Portugal entered the tournament with three centre-halves fighting for a starting spot, with Bruno Alves losing out. The trio have a combined age of 105, which was supposed to be their big weakness. However, Santos got the best out of them, in what is likely to be their final ever international tournament. They hold no blame for the defeat, but replacing them is a major issue.

Knockout Woe for Ronaldo

Portugal 3-3 Spain 2018 World Cup Russia

While Pepe and Fonte are set to depart the national side, there are worries that captain Cristiano Ronaldo will follow suit. He’s now 33, and this seems like the time for him to focus on prolonging his club career. He’s the standout player in the side, after he fired his country through the qualifiers.

Ronaldo has been key to Santos, as this was the manager’s first competitive defeat with Ronaldo in the side. However, the Real Madrid man hasn’t been that consistent for his country. While he hit four goals in his opening two matches in Russia, he’s now come up short in two vital moments for the Selecao.

After missing a penalty against Iran which could have won the group, he failed to score here. This was the latest knockout clash in which Ronaldo has failed to find the back of the net. While he has dragged Real to finals on countless occasions, he’s scored a single knockout round goal in 12 years of international football. That’s one goal in eight tournaments, which is massively below par for the reigning Ballon d’Or holder. He’s expected to be the man to make a difference on the biggest occasion, so the captain has to take some responsibility for their early exit.

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