Do Pool I victors Portugal’s ageing stars have enough spark to navigate Euro 2016?
All seems rosy on the Iberian peninsula, since Portugal pipped Pool I rivals to top the pile and qualify automatically for Euro 2016, which they are a 20/1 punt with Coral to win.
With a spot in France next summer cemented before a final fixture against already eliminated Serbia, and just one defeat during their campaign so far, there looks little to complain about.
However, at present, despite Fernando Santos’ success since taking over the reins from Paulo Bento, the Navigators’ next challenge could expose their over-reliance on an ageing spine.
There is no denying the Portuguese have made progress since Santos arrived, but some of the former Greece tactician’s decisions, although justified, have simultaneously been a backward step.
Real Madrid superstar and Portugal captain Cristiano Ronaldo’s comments following qualification were particularly revealing. The skipper said: “the arrival of Fernando Santos as coach was positive because he called back players that we needed.”
More precisely, Santos has paid heed to the old guard, such as ex-Chelsea pair Ricardo Carvalho and Tiago Mendes, bringing experienced veterans back in from the cold to get the job done.
A cull may have been required following the 2014 World Cup shambles, but these ageing pros, drafted back in after Bento’s abrupt exit, can only paper over Portugal’s cracks for so long.
“I had the joy of scoring the goal that qualified us but we all fought hard and we all deserve to be applauded,” said Monaco midfield maestro Joao Moutinho after his top-class strike sent the Navigators into raptures.
Winning Group I certainly deserves recognition but, with toothless Denmark the most menacing competitors, it was undoubtedly a weak pool that pundits still expected the Portuguese to struggle in, after an opening defeat to Albania.
In fact, that game proved to be both Bento’s last for Portugal, and the Navigators’ final qualifying defeat. Santos has patched the Portuguese up impressively, but less than sensational scorelines belie a brittleness to the once upon a time expansive outfit’s play.
Recent match-winner Moutinho is an example of their ageing ambition in himself. Now 29, the Navigators sent out the schemer to toil alongside 34-year-old Atletico Madrid man Tiago, with Bruno Alves (33) and Carvalho (37) anchoring defence, while Danny, Jose Fonte and Ricardo Quaresma were all substitutes aged 30 plus brought off the bench.
Even rampant Real goal machine Ronaldo is far from a spring chicken these days at 30, though a future without the ferocious forward will not be something to bear thinking about just yet.
With this perhaps Ronaldo’s last chance at Euro success while still in his prime, as the next competition arrives when the potent poacher will be 34, perhaps Santos is wise to give his experienced charges another chance at international glory.
Young-guns, such as those who recently helped Portugal to the Under-21 European Championship final, will have plenty more shots to take a senior squad trophies, and transitioning may simply have proven too much of a risk, though there have been some wasted opportunities to blood youth.
There has been a little more balance, however, with William Carvalho, Cedric Soares and Bernardo Silva some of the younger Portuguese to have been given starts when fit. Still, Portugal’s approach to Euro qualification stinks of short-termism and of returning to a formula that has often fallen at the final hurdle.
Will the Navigators have enough net threat to truly challenge at Euro 2016? France, Germany and Spain easily boast more energy, spark and star power, so relying on a sturdy but slow defence cannot be enough to take a title tilt. Although Santos’ former charges Greece would say differently.
Six of Santos’ 11 games in charge of Portugal have ended 1-0 in their favour, but such tight squeezes will not always fall their way. So, despite winning their group, all signs suggest the Navigators will once again rely on Ronaldo, with little supply to back him up, to steer them this summer, with any odd moment of magic from Moutinho and co an added bonus.