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.
There’s little talk of European champions Portugal going all the way this summer. They may have shocked Europe two years ago, but they have an uphill battle in Russia. Landing in a group with Spain hasn’t helped their chances, as they’re kicking off with a tougher opener against the 2010 winners. Can the Selecao surprise everyone yet again?
There are certainly elements to this Portuguese side which could take them all the way. There’s a lot of talent packed in to Fernando Santos’s squad this summer, so they’re not a side to rule out. However, their strong side still has work to do, with some weaknesses which they need to address. Ahead of this summer’s tournament, we’ve picked out the biggest strengths and weaknesses for Portugal.
Portugal have been a consistent side in the 21st century, with six semi-final appearances since 2000. That’s added a layer of expectation ahead of the tournament, but the Portuguese can deliver on that. They’ve got a winning mentality from their run to the European Championship title two years ago, which they claimed at all costs. It may have been limited and defensive, but the Portuguese will take huge confidence from that run.
Their nine wins from 10 qualifiers and semi-final appearance at the Confederations Cup only add to that. Portugal will know exactly what it takes to get results in the knockout stages in Russia, which makes them dangerous opposition.
Forwards on Form
While Portugal have defensive experience to win games, they’ve got some pretty impressive options going forward. Fernando Santos will continue with his 4-4-2 system here, with Cristiano Ronaldo among the front two. He seems set for yet another Ballon d’Or, as he finished as the Champions League’s top scorer for the sixth year running. Doing that at the highest level bodes well for a man who has already scored at seven major tournaments.
However, there’s a race to partner Ronaldo up top. Portugal went with Nani in attack two years ago, but this time around he’s not in the squad. The Selecao were fired through qualifying by the partnership of Ronaldo and Andre Silva, who hit 24 goals between them. Goncalo Guedes has emerged as a rival to Silva, and his brace against Algeria makes him the form pick up top. Those options and that competition for places bodes well for Portugal going forward.
Two of these forwards feature on our list of Portugal stars searching for transfers this summer.
Talent in Midfield
There’s also a side range of options for Portugal in the middle of the park. They are set to start with a 4-4-2, and Bernardo Silva is their midfield star. He’ll operate wide right, while Joao Mario is set to take up the left-wing position which he held in France. In between them, William Carvalho is the holding man, while he’s likely to be partnered by Adrien Silva or Joao Moutinho for the clash with Spain in Sochi.
However, there’s more options for Portugal behind those four. Ricardo Quaresma may be ageing, but he’s had his best ever club season with Besiktas. Lokomotiv Moscow midfielder Manuel Fernandes has just won the Russian title, so he could be an option here. Bruno Fernandes is another one who could break in to the side, after strong season in the Primeira Liga. He’s been a star for Sporting, and we expect the midfielder to break in to the side after impressing in the final warm up friendly. With that all to choose from, midfield is certainly a strength for the Portuguese.
Ronaldo’s World Cup Woes
One issue which the European champions need to deal with is their talisman’s record at this tournament. Ronaldo hasn’t exactly hit his stride at a World Cup before, despite scoring at three separate tournaments. He’s hit a single goal at each so far, and that won’t help the Portuguese here. He peaked ahead of the last tournament as Portugal’s talent dropped off a cliff, so the Real Madrid man didn’t have much help. He could turn things around this summer, based on his strong form for his club. Given that he starts the tournament up front, Ronaldo should get chances. If he can’t turn around that poor form, then Portugal have little hope of going far.
Portugal’s greatest strength at Euro 2016 is possibly their biggest weakness here. They relied on some great defending to take them through the group stage, but their backline is in trouble. Pepe and Jose Fonte remain the go to duo, despite being in their mid-30s. Rangers’ Bruno Alves is the first back up to those two, despite being 36. Their final choice at centre-half is the inexperienced Ruben Dias, who is just 21.
When you add in fitness concerns over left-back Raphael Guerreiro, the Portuguese defence is suddenly a concern. They’re going to be really vulnerable to pace up front, and you’d have to question their chances of keeping Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani quiet in the second round. Portugal will need to drop deeper to cover them, while Pepe and Fonte will need to produce in what has to be their final tournament.
Can they Adapt Their Approach?
Portugal had a gameplan in 2016 and they stuck to it. They got fortunate by qualifying despite finishing third in their group, and then they proceeded to defend for their lives. With Pepe and Fonte looking vulnerable, Portugal will need to change their approach for Russia. They can’t rely on not making any defensive errors, while they could leave their forwards isolated.
Should the midfield drop back to cover their deep central defenders, Ronaldo and Silva will require support. Bernardo Silva and Bruno Fernandes could supply that, and they will be crucial in adding energy to this team. Meanwhile, William Carvalho will have to be at his best screening the midfield, given the issues behind him. Portugal need to get to grips with a different style. If they can’t, then it’s hard to see them making the latter stages.
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