Portugal head into this summer’s European Championship looking to defend their title from 2016.
The Selecao ended their long wait for a major international title by beating hosts France 1-0 in the final five years ago. That said, they do have an impressive record in this competition, never failing to reach the quarter-finals since the tournament’s restructuring in 1996, as well as reaching three semi-finals and two finals in that time.
Fernando Santos’ men followed up that triumph by winning the inaugural Uefa Nations League in 2019, quickly casting aside the disappointment of a round-of-16 exit at the 2018 World Cup in Russia.
So, what can we expect from Portugal at this summer’s festival of football, and where do they rank among the tournament favourites?
The best players Portugal will bring to Euro 2020
Likely one of the few surviving members of that 2016 success, Rui Patricio was in inspired form as Portugal finally ended their international heartache, keeping four clean sheets in seven games and making 21 saves. Since then, he’s added the Nations League to his medal collection while also winning a Taça da Liga with Sporting CP, before moving to the Premier League with Wolves.
Since joining up with compatriot Nuno Espirito Santo, Patricio has been almost ever-present, missing just one Premier League game across his first two seasons alone. The 33-year-old has consistently ranked among the English top-flight’s top goalkeepers when it comes to saves and clean sheets, and he’ll be a formidable last line of defence for an already rock-solid backline that conceded just six goals in eight qualifying games.
“His ability is incredible, as is his understanding of the game,” Manchester City manager Pep Guardiola said of Ruben Dias back in January. “He wants to learn and all of us were impressed by how he takes care of his body and mind, every day. We were surprised a lot.
“The day after [a game] – 8.30 in the morning in the gym. He makes his routine, he eats perfectly. He lives 24 hours for his profession. I can assure you that we signed one incredible player for the next five, six, seven years. That is not easy to find.”
Indeed, after a tough initial teething period, Dias has truly stepped up to the plate, leading an almost unbreakable Man City defence that has swatted some of the Premier League’s best forwards aside like flies in recent months. So good has the partnership between Dias and John Stones been, that even the mighty Aymeric Laporte has struggled to get minutes on the pitch.
Most likely to partner Jose Fonte — who has been excellent for Lille this season — at the heart of the Portuguese defence, Dias will bring supreme class in possession for his nation, while he’ll also be the one to come out and defend on the front foot, allowing the veteran Fonte to sit behind and mop up. It’s a partnership of young and old, speed and strength, style and solidity. One which will make Portugal very difficult to score against.
Of course, it’s not all about defending for Portugal, even if that is what has often carried them to victory since 2016. Further forward, the Selecao are blessed with some of the most dangerous midfielders and forwards on the planet right now, and they don’t come much better than Bruno Fernandes.
Sure, he’s only managed two goals and four assists in 27 caps at senior international level so far, but he’s been right in the thick of the attacking action at club level since joining Manchester United in January 2020, just as he was in Portugal for Sporting CP. Fernandes is the central piece to Ole Gunnar Solskjaer’s jigsaw, effectively carrying the Red Devils to second at times and although he can be accused of stat-padding with penalties, that is actually a skill that can serve you well at international tournaments.
Even with his goalscoring exploits in mind, it’s going to be Fernandes’ job to get the ball to Portugal’s lethal forwards.
“He knows where everyone is on the pitch,” Man Utd legend Paul Scholes said of the 26-year-old in February. “He has a picture in his head and he is capable of playing the killer pass every time. I love watching him play.”
For all their goalscoring and defensive prowess, Fernandes is arguably the one player who can slice a defence wide open at the drop of a hat, and that’s going to be invaluable to his nation’s chances this summer.
We said they “don’t come much better” than Fernandes for a reason: Portugal have Cristiano Ronaldo in their ranks.
Even at 36 years old, Ronaldo is one of the most lethal forwards on the planet, rapidly approaching 100 goals for Juventus in less than three seasons since joining from Real Madrid, firing the Old Lady to back-to-back scudetti in the process. He might not be as mobile as he once was, but Ronaldo still has a deceptive turn of pace, while his physicality and ability in the air are almost unmatched.
Ronaldo has formed an extremely close bond with his national team manager over the years and Santos was quick to defend his captain when some suggested Portugal would actually be better off as a team without the 173-time international, who has scored a ridiculous 103 goals during that time.
“What more can I say? A team that has the best in the world cannot be better without the best in the world,” said Santos in September. “[Ronaldo] goes on breaking records and records and then, when everyone thinks he is going to finish, there are even more records to beat. He feeds on it.”
Ronaldo has scored 21 goals in 44 caps for Portugal across European Championship, World Cup and Nations League play combined and even when he’s unable to have a direct influence on the game himself, he is front and centre, encouraging and demanding the very best from his teammates. The images of him acting as a second manager from the dugout during the Euro 2016 final have become iconic.
Father Time appears to be no match for Ronaldo right now but this must surely be his final Euros. What better way to sign off from the competition than by becoming only the second captain to retain it after former Real Madrid teammate Iker Casillas?
Fernando Santos: The international grandmaster
Santos is quickly approaching 150 games as an international manager with Greece and Portugal and, thus far, he’s only lost 20 games across all competitions and friendlies. What’s more, his record in tournament play is quite remarkable:
Fernando Santos’ international major tournament record:
- Euro 2012 (Greece): Quarter-finals
- 2014 World Cup (Greece): Last 16
- Euro 2016 (Portugal): Winner
- 2018 World Cup: Last 16
- 2019 Nations League: Winner
This runs in direct contrast to his managerial career at club level, where Santos managed just one Primeira Liga title with Porto and a scattering of cups in Portugal and Greece across 22 years. Some managers are just made for international football.
Portugal’s previous major tournament line-up
vs Uruguay (2018 World Cup round-of-16)
Although the likes of Patricio and Fonte remain, there will be a very different feel to Portugal this summer compared to the line-up we saw in their 2018 World Cup round-of-16 defeat to Uruguay. The likes of Adrien Silva and Joao Silva have fallen from prominence, with Danilo Pereira getting plenty of minutes with PSG to boost his midfield chances.
Then, of course, there is the emergence of Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix as world-class talents, meaning Goncalo Guedes is up against it when trying to retain his starting spot at another tournament.
Leicester City right-back Ricardo Pereira should travel, but injury issues and the excellent form of Joao Canacelo for Manchester City means he has slipped down the depth chart.
How could Portugal line up at Euro 2020?
Throughout qualifying for the Euros, Santos switched between 4-3-3 and 4-4-2 systems, or close variants of the two. More recently, during the 2020/21 Nations League, he’s settled on the 4-3-3.
Predictably, Ronaldo lines up as the central striker, flanked by Joao Felix and Bernardo Silva, whom he can bring into play by using his strength to hold up the ball while those two will also do most of the running for him when Portugal are pressing. Diogo Jota can also be brought in to operate anywhere across the forward line, while Andre Silva has been in red-hot goalscoring form for Eintracht Frankfurt this year.
Portugal's squad is stacked. 🇵🇹
And we've had to miss some players out… pic.twitter.com/ODfNOoK0di
— Squawka Football (@Squawka) February 24, 2021
Further back, Fernandes is the midfield maverick allowed the freedom to join the front three in attack, backed by pass master Joao Moutinho — another who brings immense experience to this squad — and Danilo Pereira, who is a goliath in the No.6 role, dominating defensive duels both on the ground and in the air. Of course, William Carvalho is an experienced campaigner who could operate at the base of the midfield, while the likes of Andre Gomes and Renato Sanches could add a touch of class and run down the clock, should they be required.
And at the back, in front of Patricio, is that aforementioned partnership of Dias and Fonte. Either side of them, Portugal have arguably the most dynamic and tactically interesting pair of full-backs in Europe right now. Joao Cancelo has emerged as one of Guardiola’s key pieces during City’s formidable winter run, famously drifting inside from his right-back position to act as a pseudo-central midfielder, giving his side numerical dominance in possession, while distributing the ball with authority and composure. On the left, Guerriero is equally adept at moving into central positions thanks to his versatility. The Dortmund man has played in midfield on a number of occasions and has a wicked left foot, capable of switching play or whipping in deadly crosses.
But it’s important to remember just how quick Cancelo and Guerreiro are. If Santos feels he needs to stretch the opposition and pin back their wingers, his full-backs can charge forward at a moment’s notice, providing thrust in attack and, as mentioned, mouth-watering delivery for the likes of Ronaldo and Felix.
What form will Portugal head into Euro 2020 in?
Portugal could only finish second to France in their Nations League group, but they did finish 10 points clear of Croatia in third, beating the 2018 World Cup runners-up 3-2 in their final game to end the campaign with a record of four wins, one draw and one defeat from six games. In fact, since September 2020, Portugal have lost just one of their eight international fixtures — a 1-0 defeat to France — winning five and drawing two.
But Portugal were surprisingly suspect during qualifying. Despite winning five of their eight games with a group-high 22 goals scored, the reigning champions could only finish second to Ukraine, who beat Portugal 2-1 back in October 2019, while a three-point gap between themselves and Serbia in third was anything but comfortable. In fact, in games against Ukraine and Serbia — comfortably their closest rivals during qualification — Portugal could only manage five points, winning once and drawing twice alongside that aforementioned defeat.
Portugal’s Euro 2020 odds
“Most definitely. I feel that in terms of quality, in terms of players with ability and playing for top teams, this Portuguese squad is up there with the best,” Jose Fonte told Squawka when asked if he’s confident of Portugal going far at Euro 2020.
“We feel confident. We certainly feel we can compete. We’re not favourites but we’re not scared of anyone. We can win any game against anybody.”
At the time of writing, Portugal are priced at 8/1 by Sky Bet, behind Spain (15/2), Spain (7/1), Belgium (6/1) and joint-favourites France and England (5/1), to win the tournament outright. But the Selecao certainly weren’t fancied in 2016 and Fonte believes his nation has the “chemistry and discipline” to close those odds come the summer.
“So we just have to try to get that chemistry back when we can be together and work hard as a team,” the 37-year-old added. “Like I said, with Lille, and in terms of how we did it in the Euros. We weren’t scared of anybody. If we can defend well, keep clean sheets as a team, with the players that we have, we’re always going to have chances.
“So it’s all about keeping clean sheets, keeping discipline and when we go forward, when we have the ball, we can score goals for sure.”