Portugal Nations League preview

Portugal face Netherlands in their semi final

After shocking hosts France to pick up a first major international title when winning the 2016 European Championships, Portugal remain a force to be reckoned with, despite having not made it past the first knockout round of last summer’s World Cup.

Portugal did, however, negotiate their way out of a very tough group in Russia, before succumbing to the attack-heavy force of Uruguay in the round of 16, despite having had four times the amount of efforts at goal than their opponent.

Hosting the first-ever Nations League finals, Portugal will certainly fancy their chances of becoming the inaugural Nations League champions, with their multitude of young, vibrant attacking players ensuring they no longer have to be so reliant on captain Cristiano Ronaldo, having cruised through to the June showpiece without their record goalscorer all campaign.

How they qualified

With Ronaldo absent, for over nine months in total, as he wanted time to “settle” into life at new side Juventus, Portugal set about qualification in impressive fashion early on, beating Italy more convincingly than the 1-0 scoreline in their Group A3 opener suggested, before battling to a crucial 3-2 win in Poland, with Bernardo Silva’s strike in the second half turning out to be the winner.

Then, with goalkeeper Rui Patricio starring in a 0-0 draw with Italy in Rome, Portugal became the first side to secure their place in the finals this summer, where the winners from each of the four groups from League A will face off.

Plus, UEFA had decided, in principle, that the winners of Group A3 would host the mini-tournament, meaning Portugal were then selected in December to host the inaugural event.

Portugal’s final Nations League group match therefore became effectively meaningless, even if the 1-1 draw with Poland was overshadowed by the sending off of Manchester City’s Danilo.


Key men

Even at 34, Ronaldo is still very much at the forefront of coach Fernando Santos’ plans, even if the Juventus forward has not scored for his country since the World Cup.

Ronaldo has failed to inspire his side in two recent draws with Ukraine and Serbia as Portugal got off to a disappointing start to their 2020 European Championship qualification campaign.

Despite Juventus surging to yet another Serie A crown, Ronaldo actually finished the season with his lowest goal total since his final season at Manchester United, but even at 34, he still thrives on the big stage, and will do everything in his power to secure more glory for Portugal on home soil.

Nowadays, especially in attack, there is much more to Portugal than just Ronaldo. Bernardo Silva played a key role from out wide for Manchester City as they completed an unprecedented domestic treble, finishing third in the PFA Player of the Year voting, while Bruno Fernandes’ heroics for Sporting Lisbon means he is likely to finally be trusted by Santos to start.

Incredibly, from midfield, Sporting's captain has scored 32 goals and registered 17 assists in all competitions this season and is the reigning Primeira Liga Player of the Year.

Midfield could also feature Ruben Neves and Joao Moutinho, who starred for Wolves as they finished seventh in the Premier League.

Their myriad of forward and midfield options, however, are not replicated in the defensive ranks, with an ageing Pepe still very much fundamental to their cause.


One to watch - Joao Felix

Many will already know a great deal about this incredible Benfica youngster, if they pay any attention at all to the transfer rumourmill.

Manchester United, Manchester City, Real Madrid and Juventus are all reportedly willing to break the bank for this Joao Felix, even though the 19-year-old did not make his senior debut for Benfica until August.

Felix became the youngest player to score a hat-trick in the Europa League when the Portuguese league leaders defeated Eintracht Frankfurt 4-2 in the first leg of their quarter-final tie in Lisbon, and he has registered 13 league goals this season - not a bad tally for someone who is not an out-and-out striker.

While the Ronaldo comparison is an easy one, Felix’s languid style despite his imposing frame has more similarities to Brazilian Kaka, or even former Portugal great Rui Costa.

"It was clear for everybody that we were in front of a young, special talent," Benfica academy manager Nuno Gomes said.

"His relationship with the ball, his first touch, his intelligence" marked him out as a completely "different kind of player."

Felix is yet to earn a senior cap, but with so much talent, and much furore over his abilities the world over, Fernando Santos may well not be able to ignore Felix for much longer.


The manager

Having taken over in 2014, Santos is one of the longer serving coaches in international football, having taken to the international stage following a successful spell with Porto and several stints in Greece.

The Greek national team gave Santos his first opportunity in international football management, and he duly steered the nation to the knockout stages of the World Cup for the first time in 2014.

However, it is with his homeland – Portugal – that Santos has come into his own, immediately guiding his team to the finals of Euro 2016.

And in France, Portugal shocked Europe to claim a first-ever major international title, beating host nation France in the final, winning the competition having won just one game in normal time all tournament.

Santos masterminded such a feat built on solid foundations. He set his team up very defensively, and relied on the abilities on his captain Ronaldo to snatch wins down the other end – to great effect – Portugal conceded just one goal in the knockout stages in France.

Times are changing for Portugal and Santos, though, with so many brilliant attacking players to incorporate. Will his defensive principals have to become a thing of the past?


Expert opinion

Tom Kundert, World Soccer Portugal correspondent

Portugal have real firepower with the likes of free-scoring midfielders Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and brilliant emerging striker João Félix, not to mention the returning Ronaldo, but what will determine Portugal’s success will likely be how their defence performs. The centre-back options are few, Pepe’s form has been erratic since returning to Porto and Rúben Dias is prone to reckless challenges. If they are both on top of their game, Portugal will likely do well.

Fernando Santos has stuck to 4-4-2, occasionally opting for 4-3-3, with the emphasis of being solid and hard to break down, an approach which is coming under increasing criticism given it fails to get the most out of Portugal’s talented attacking players.

Playing at home and with so much exciting talent available Portugal have a decent chance of becoming the inaugural winners of the Nations League, but the key could well be how that defence holds up.