Portugal have almost been synonymous with Cristiano Ronaldo, such has been their reliance on the Real Madrid forward over the past decade. Coming into Euro 2016, things are no different as the team once again look to their prolific goal-scorer to lead the way. At 31, this might be Ronaldo’s last major international tournament, and he is desperate to win silverware for his country.
Even through Ronaldo scored 52 goals in the 2015-16 season and slotted the winning penalty for Real Madrid in the Champions League final, there are questions hovering over his fitness. In the final, he looked sluggish for most of the 120 minutes and is yet to hit his peak physical condition.
One of the two best players in the world right now, everyone knows what Ronaldo is capable of. He can single-handedly win matches for his team, but Portugal’s chances at Euro 2016 will probably come down to how well the rest of the team supports the Number 7.
And they seem to have found the right man to direct the squad in Fernando Santos. The 61-year-old manager took over from Paulo Bent after Portugal lost their first qualifying match to Albania. Since his appointment, they won the remaining seven matches, topping their group in qualifying.
Santos brought with him sweeping changes, switching from a 4-4-3 formation to a more flexible 4-4-2 with natural wingers Ronaldo and Luis Nani as the front two. This has given the Ronaldo freedom to move around and absolves him of any defensive abilities on the flank. The 31-year-old is still the best-scoring option for Portugal, and this system puts him in the ideal position to attack.
Ronaldo and Nani would be backed by the new, young breed of Portuguese players in the midfield. Portugal came second in the U-21 European Championship last summer and have a talented bunch of youngsters, waiting to make a mark at the big stage. Renato Sanches, the midfield prodigy known as Bulo, has seen a meteoric rise all the way up to Bayern Munich. Joao Mario, William Carvalho and Raphaël Guerreiro are other members of this upcoming generation. Danilo, the Porto powerhouse, has added balance to the midfield, allowing the attackers ahead of him to flourish.
Andre Gomes, a gifted central midfielder at Valencia, could prove to be a pivotal player for Santos. Tall, hard-working and diligent, Gomes has been touted as the next big Portuguese star, with many clubs chasing him over the summer. He doesn’t shirk from defensive responsibilities but Santos is likely to play him in a more advanced midfield role to split the opponent’s defence.
The experience of Pepe and Ricardo Carvalho at the back will give the team a strong foundation. With Joao Pereira not included in the squad, Adelino Vieirinha looks the likely right-back and Eliseu will replace the injured Fábio Coentrão on the left, though Cédric and Guerreiro are likely to challenge for those opening spots as well.
While the youngsters have boosted the squad, there are some evident areas of concern pulling the team down. In France, they need to play as a unit to avoid an embarrassing repeat of their 2014 World Cup performance in Brazil. Portugal do not have a traditional number 9 in their team and will have to get away with playing a false 9. Éder is their only out-and-out striker and he has a disappointing three goals in 26 international appearances. Portugal need the duo of Nani and Ronaldo to complement each other in front, else they have limited Plan B options. They came through qualifying courtesy consecutive 1-0 wins, with Ronaldo scoring 5 of those goals. They need to create and convert multiple chances in every game, especially once they reach the knockout stage of the tournament.
Portugal have been pitied against Austria, Iceland and Hungary in Group F. Austria have blossomed into genuine contenders for the top spot in this group, qualifying into the Championship final with the second highest points at 28. Their free-flowing play has made them favourite with the neutrals and they will not be an easy opponent to beat.
Santos’ men start their campaign on 14 June against Iceland, who are no pushovers either. What makes this group even more intriguing is the fact that this one of the only two groups in the competition where the table-toppers won’t play a third-placed team in the Round of 16. Due to an expanded format featuring 24 teams, If Portugal finish on top, they would face the runner-up of Group E (featuring Italy, Belgium, Sweden and Republic of Ireland). A second-place would see them competing against the runner-up of Group B (Wales, England, Russia and Slovakia). While they would love to proceed to the knockout stages with winning momentum under their belt, finishing second wouldn’t turn out to be too bad an outcome for Portugal.
In 2012, Ronaldo suffered a brutal loss at the hands of eventual Champions Spain in the penalty shootout. This year in France, the mixture of youth and experience around Ronaldo could possibly surge Portugal one step further. While the team may not be a match on paper to some of the other big weights in the tournament, Ronaldo might just script his last hurrah at Euro 2016.
Goalkeepers: Rui Patrício, Anthony Lopes, Eduardo
Defenders: Vieirinha, Cédric, Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho, Bruno Alves, José Fonte, Eliseu, Raphael Guerreiro
Midfielders: William Carvalho, Danilo Pereira, João Moutinho, Renato Sanches, Adrien Silva, André Gomes, João Mário
Forwards: Rafa Silva, Ricardo Quaresma, Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo, Éder