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Can midfield youngsters protect ageing Portugal defence at Euro 2016?

Holly Thackeray | May 18, 2016

Portugal have certainly been quick out of the blocks in announcing their 23-man final squad for Euro 2016. Decisive gaffer Fernando Santos has not dithered, but his selections have revealed somewhat of a striking roster schism.

With quite a contrasting generation gap between defence (where six of eight are 30 or over) and midfield (which features just two players above 24), the former Greece coach has questions of age to answer. Will his veteran rearguard enforcers leave the Navigators open to devastatingly quick counters? Or could their experience prove crucial in the latter stages of the competition?

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Coral contemplate whether Portugal’s youthful midfield picks can cover for reliance on the old guard at the back, or whether it will be a case of vice-versa, with the ageing pros able to compose their younger peers further forward…

Portuguese proteges have plenty to offer in France

The jury had been out as to how many of the young stars Santos had helped blood would make the final cut, but the former Greece gaffer has stood by his crop of promising Portuguese talent, leaving the likes Dynamo Kiev shield Miguel Veloso out in the cold.

Some injuries to regulars and stalwarts may well have forced the manager’s hand but, instead of looking back to a past that failed to live up to the hype, he has turned to the future instead for possible solutions.

Versatile Fabio Coentrao and reliable midfield technician Tiago are two names that would most certainly have been called up if not for injury, thus adding to the average age of the squad and balancing the profiles of their respective positions, but instead of a being a blow their respective stints on the sidelines have opened exciting doors.

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Porto’s teenage deep playmaker Ruben Neves and silky Benfica winger Goncalo Guedes (both 19 and on two caps) are notable omissions, but ones due to the expected inconsistencies that always arrive with youth. Instead of pushing here, Santos has been savvy – he can save this duo for another day.

Despite relatively poor defensive depth, Santos’ previous life as a defender himself may have weighed on his decision not to cull the backline as readily, knowing in detail how experience can be an asset in that position, provided plenty of young legs and willing runners are ready to surround that nous.

A base to build on Ronaldo’s talent

It’s tough not to mention Navigators skipper, talisman and all-time top scorer Cristiano Ronaldo when talking of the Portugal picks, though for once all does not revolve around the Real Madrid superstar.

The captain has been crying out for a solid spine to back up his lethal scoring prowess since he briefly crossed paths with Luis Figo, Deco and co, joining them on the road to the Euro 2004 final as just a teenager. Now is his chance to be the instructor, and take Portugal’s next generation that one step further.

There has been plenty of experimentation, with Santos recently shunning his regular 4-3-3 in favour of two up top, but the personnel has been inter-changeable. This could work well with anyone adaptable able to slot in which ever system the ex-Primeira Liga coach should choose, though there could be a lack of gelling with so many new(ish) recruits headed to a first major senior tournament.

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Defence will be made up of an often temperamental Pepe (33) plus one of Bruno Alves (34) or Jose Fonte (32) with evergreen Ricardo Carvalho (38) likely in reserve, while Vieirinha (30) and Eliseu (32) will be competing with a relative pair of upstarts in Southampton star Cedric Soares (24) and Raphael Guerreiro (22) for the full back berths.

Naturally, concerns are likely to turn to whether these ageing internationals could hold their own if faced with the pure speed, quick thinking and fast feet of an Anthony Martial or a Leroy Sane charging at them on the counter-attack.

Most of these men have the intellect and anticipation garnered by playing at the highest level, but sometimes not even the most astute footballing brain can make up for the loss of a yard or two of pace. Luckily, this is where Santos may see his midfield selections shine.

Midfield may have a lot of ground to cover

Again it is a toss up who will start in the Navigators’ engine room, but whoever it is will need to be able to cover every blade of grass in the big games.

It is likely to be regular fixtures Adrien Silva (27), oldest midfield schemer Joao Moutinho (29) sticking to the task centrally alongside perhaps only one younger dynamo with never-ending Premier League/Manchester United-linked William Carvalho or Danilo Pereira (both 24) manning the fort.

Hardly ground-breaking young picks in a possible XI then, though the gliding guile of another potential Red Devil (or Juventus transfer depending which tabloid you trust) in Andre Gomes (22) could be selected instead for a little more attacking intent, after his recent goal heroics against Ronaldo’s Los Blancos for Valencia.

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While, Renato Sanches (18) would be a real surprise starter, and is far more likely to see game time as a substitute, able to bring boundless energy off the bench. The Bayern Munich bound signing better get used to brushing shoulders with the big boys, though by all accounts his form has recently faltered.

Still, considering his spectacular trajectory and substantial physical presence, it may not be so surprising to see the former Benfica boy take it all in his stride and give his best shot of nudging a lesser profile from the first-team to help cover for deficiencies of pace and power in defence. Though at the stage he would most likely see minutes, Sanches’ help may not be required in Group F against inexperienced Iceland and Hungary, or even a rather blunt Austria, in a pool the Portuguese are 10/11 to win.

Silva struggles could see Santos strike gold

If Ronaldo and/or fellow former Man Utd wingman and Sporting Lisbon product Nani start up top as false nines or roaming forwards, with hitman Eder farmed out to Lille in Ligue 1 after struggling at Swansea City, there is space for younger legs here.

Ricardo Quaresma has had far too many chances to bring magic to attacking midfield, so it is to be hoped that any third forward thinker joining Ronaldo and Nani up top, or if two widemen are required on the wing, they will be plucked from among the fresher faces.

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Bernardo Silva is another recent casualty, now ruled out of featuring in France due to injury. While this is a blow as the Monaco (and yes, Man Utd mooted transfer target) wing wizard had looked intriguing alongside more direct Ronaldo, and starred in the Under-21 European Championships last year, standing out as a star performer inspiring his team to the final, it could also be another opening.

With wingers by trade potentially up top, goal threat could be required from the flanks to replace the danger there that may stop teams targeting the weaker wide areas. Bernardo Silva, who has failed to set the world alight with the same seven strike return as last term in almost double the amount of games, would perhaps not have been the potent presence required to free Ronaldo up.

Future Red Devils in the ranks?

Up steps namesake Rafa Silva then. Not statistically much more prolific with 11 goals in all competitions, the 23-year-old has been playing for much more unfashionable Braga, who he helped to a Europa League quarter-final and a best of the rest domestic league finish, with his finishing an aspect that is ever improving.

Of course, as he’s Portuguese the tricky attacker has also been tipped to move to Old Trafford this summer, and is noted for his top-notch ability to run with the ball seemingly glued to his feet, which could certainly give opposition a triple threat to think about with real teeth.

Should Santos instead opt for a little more work-rate, and want to keep Rafa Silva as a potential catalyst to come off the sidelines late on to stretch tired defences, coveted Joao Mario’s versatility to play all across attacking midfield could be more appealing.

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Somewhat of a safer bet, the technically excellent plotter also provides a lot more work-rate and the potential to complement as more of a support artist with assists, so may see Santos favour Mario (23) as a key cog and manipulator instead, with a real chance to put himself even more in the shop window.

As long as Portugal can keep possession, and the attacking impetus, with these younger players hungry to impress and ready to provide an edge, they really may not have to worry too much about their defence if they stay on the front foot, with the experience behind hopefully handing them that confidence to go forward in the first place.

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With the hope of ending their long wait for silverware, this bold mix and match of age groups could really prove profitable at the latter stages, as the Navigators try to truly be considered among elite international nations. With so much to prove, for a generation that failed to meet expectation and another yet to raise them, Portugal look a magnificent punt at 7/2 to reach the semi-finals.

Portugal Euro 2016 squad:

Goalkeepers: Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon), Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Eduardo (Dynamo Zagreb).

Defenders: Vieirinha (Wolfsburg), Cedric Soares (Southampton), Pepe (Real Madrid), Ricardo Carvalho (Monaco), Bruno Alves (Fenerbahce), Jose Fonte (Southampton), Eliseu (Benfica), Raphael Guerreiro (Lorient).

Midfielders: William Carvalho (Sporting), Danilo Pereira (Porto), Joao Moutinho (Monaco), Renato Sanches (Benfica), Adrien Silva (Sporting), Andre Gomes (Valencia), Joao Mario (Sporting)

Forwards: Rafa Silva (Braga), Ricardo Quaresma (Besiktas), Nani (Fenerbahce), Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid), Eder (Lille/Swansea City).

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