Portugal prodigies such as Renato Sanches pushing for Euro 2016 chance
Holly Thackeray | February 13, 2016
Exciting Iberian talents demanding bigger stage
Now is the time, just months away from the first ball being kicked in France, that those on the fringes of international squads across Europe must play their best hand and hope to squeeze on to a plane destined for Euro 2016.
In England, there is an unmistakable clamour for Roy Hodgson to throw caution to the wind and field his most young and hungry Three Lions fledglings, while France, Germany and Spain are among other sides with a new generation of stars threatening to steal squad spots.
Yet, there is perhaps a big-name side that could benefit even more from blooding youth talent this summer, as Portugal strive to secure their first major silverware before the Cristiano Ronaldo era is over.
Currently, the Navigators are an outside price of 20/1 with Coral to nab the European Championship from under the noses of holders and Iberian rivals Spain, but could those chances change if young blood is given the go-ahead by boss Fernando Santos?
Creaky qualifying campaign gives rise to caution
Despite a smattering of superstar names, the Portugal roster has long been accused of being rather average when it counts, far from the days of Deco and co knocking England out of quarter-finals.
Their Euro 2016 qualifying campaign did little to dispel doubts about whether iconic captain Ronaldo alone will ever be able to inspire his nation to a trophy, as Santos arrived to steady the ship after the road to France had already begun.
Still, across qualifying, four of Portugal’s eight fixtures resulted in 1-0 victories as they topped Group I. While a win and pool lead is nothing to be sniffed at, it was a group the Portuguese should have toyed with, as outsiders Albania gave them a real run for their summit-chasing money at times, with drab Denmark and Serbia vintages flopping.
The Navigators still seemed to make tough and turgid work of it, however, yet again relying on individuals to pull them through, with their only three-goal rout occurring against minnows Armenia.
Other matches were won tightly and often by one-goal margins, with seven wins and one defeat (to Albania) not looking so shiny in context, especially with a goal difference of just six and two glorified France friendlies ending emphatically in defeat.
Meanwhile, in the background, Portugal Under-21s made a statement as they steamed all the way to the UEFA European Under-21 Championship finish line, losing out only in a spot-kick lottery with Sweden, after smashing Germany 5-0 in the semi-finals.
Santos integrating slowly
To be fair to Santos, several young names from that Under-21 run have been given outings with the parent Portugal team, with the likes of Monaco wing wizard Bernardo Silva, 18-year-old Porto talent Ruben Neves, Sporting Lisbon midfield shield William Carvalho (named player of that Under-21 tournament) and clubmate Joao Mario all grabbing caps.
Yet, there is still the argument these young-guns are not being utilised to their true potential ahead of the France finals, as several continue to shine at club level.
Fans are often impatient to see the next big thing take on a bigger role and the expense of a jaded old guard but, in this case, they could have a point.
Managers are often keen to stick loyally by the reliable players that have helped them achieve qualification, rather than pander to supporter or public opinion on flavours of the month with substantially shorter CVs.
So, while Santos should be commended for not hoisting his young talents into the deep end, or rushing development, Portugal must make sure they are not giving into temptation to rest on their laurels, hoping for one final rally from those 30 and over in a last chance saloon.
There are several names still buzzing around the international set-up that have had an abundance of chances but never quite been up to it, including everyone’s favourite former showboater Ricardo Quaresma, struggling Swansea City striker Eder and Russia-based attacker Danny.
An eye on the final
Speaking recently, coach Santos told press of his training base in France: “[The training facilities are] booked until July 10th, we will play the final in Paris and it is on that basis.
“We reserved until then and we believe we will stay here until the 10th…by the way, the 11th, I just want to go [home] on the 11th – after throwing the party.
“The stage does not win games, the winners are the players,” continued Santos. But, will potentially including Quaresma at the expense of youngsters really see a longer stay for Portugal?
Of course, a strong and experienced spine is required, but in Ronaldo, Nani, Joao Moutinho, if fit Fabio Coentrao, Jose Fonte, Cedric Soares, Tiago and even veteran centre backs Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho and Bruno Alves there is a decent quality core.
Yet, anyone tired of seeing the all too familiar sight of once-in-a-generation player Ronaldo shackled, cutting a frustrated figure on foreign fields as he attempts to drag less talented colleagues through tournaments, must surely crave to see him supported by a fresher cast.
Still chances to test talent
Euro warm-up wrangles with Bulgaria, Belgium and Norway are already pencilled in, with the potential for a headline duel with England also, giving Santos the chance to still tinker with both his squad and starting XI.
Of course, these games should be used to perfect a formula for France but, should Santos want a true lasting Navigators legacy they should also be for the purpose of further blooding youth. Experience on this stage in summer could really reap fruit in future.
Some highly-rated starlets such as Udinese’s uncapped Bruno Fernandes should remain comfortably in the Under-21s for now, while those such as Joao Cancelo from struggling Valencia, should rightly be concentrating on club form instead of a chance of international selection.
However, there are some wildcards, yet to be brought into the senior fold, that should be considered; namely Benfica’s man of the moment, Renato Sanches.
This is no reactionary statement, as Portugal need another spark from somewhere, and the exciting teenager, linked with a big money move to Manchester United, has been providing such in spades.
Sanches a star in waiting
There are some players who do not need patience, just an opportunity to take and, in the snippets seen of his short career so far, driving midfield force Sanches seems of that ilk.
Having taken to the Primeira Liga without fear, Benfica’s new prize asset most recently provided a highlight-reel pass to assist against bitter rivals Porto and is already renowned for his ability to launch stinging rockets goalwards.
View Sanches’ rifled strike:
Somewhat unique in physique and strength for an 18-year-old, on the surface it seems outlandish to dish out a squad place for an unproven player in his first league season and without an Under-21 cap.
Yet, such a raw talent could be a useful weapon off the bench, so the idea of his inclusion, to cut his teeth even if he remains on the sidelines, is not without merit.
A player that can excite is just what Portugal require, and if that comes at the expense of star name that has failed to help the Navigators (8/1 to reach the final) perform before, then why not? A bold or surprise selection can invigorate tired ranks.
More than Sanches up Portugal’s sleeve
Whether or not Sanches should be considered for a plane seat, there are more established youngsters that should make the journey, or even be considered to start.
Silva is one such player, with his guile and graft on the right wing at club-level for Monaco. Having drawn praise for his playmaking, a fluid front three of Ronaldo, Nani and the 21-year-old talent could be Portugal’s most potent.
While, midfield anchor places could also be up for grabs, as Ruben Neves continues to impress with his composure and passing from deep, as a regular leader on the pitch for Porto, at just 18.
Though, Premier League-linked Carvalho (William) is the more likely to feature and provide grit alongside schemer Moutinho, with Joao Mario and Valencia’s smooth passer Andre Gomes also jostling for squad places, though the latter must make more of an impression after only recently returning from injury.
Certainly, the midfield ranks will be crowded for years to come if all reach their potential. While, a squad shout could also go to another bright, young Benfica thing in Goncalo Guedes.
The exuberant winger had fans off seats early in the season, with three strikes and four assists in eight Liga games, though has since been outshone by older peer Pizzi due to expected inconsistencies from the 19-year-old Eagle.
Still, a late sub with speed and goal threat instead of a lumbering Eder could make all the difference this summer. Will Santos’ squad selections focus on a last-gasp trophy dash for veterans, or a stage for the next generation to shine? Time will tell, but there are plenty of places still to play for this season. It could be worth rolling the dice.