When Portugal were drawn with Denmark in Euro 2016 qualification, the nerves must have been jangling. In both Euro 2012 and World Cup 2010 qualification, the Danes had pipped them to first place – leaving them needing to win a play-off to advance.
This time around, however, Portugal claimed top spot in Group I, the first time they had qualified for the European Championship without needing a play-off since Euro ’96. It was still not exactly straightforward, though. A defeat at home to Albania in their opening qualifier saw Paulo Bento’s four-year reign as national team coach come to an end, with ex-Greece and FC Porto coach Fernando Santos drafted in as his replacement. From that point on, however, Portugal showed their quality – winning seven out of seven to book their place in France.
Portugal’s European Championship history is one punctuated by nearmisses with three semi-final defeats – including to Spain last time out at Euro 2012 – and of course, the shock loss to Greece in the 2004 final on home soil. The image of a tearful teenage Cristiano Ronaldo is one that is burned into the national psyche, with players and fans alike still desperate to end the nation’s wait for a first international title.
This time around, Portugal appear to have been granted a kind group stage draw alongside debutants Iceland, a Hungary side playing at their first major tournament in 30 years and Austria, whose qualification was their first ever for a European Championship, having played only once before as hosts in 2008.
A 2-1 friendly victory over Belgium in March should inspire confidence that results can be ground out against top opposition, and with Ronaldo leading the line, Santos’ men certainly find themselves among the favourites to lift the Henri Delaunay trophy.
Aside from the obvious, that they can call on one of the best players in the world, Portugal’s midfield boasts quality and versatility in abundance. Sporting’s Joao Mario has been a revelation and will likely start despite only playing 22 minutes in qualifying, while Joao Moutinho’s return has been welcomed with open arms as he brings craft and experience.
There’s only one Ronaldo and when he’s not on song, Portugal usually struggle. A lack of strength in depth up front has been a concern for the national team for many years and coach Santos faces the same problem. In defence, too, there is a question mark over the pairing of Ricardo Carvalho and Pepe – both are wily and strong, but can be found wanting against forwards with pace.
STAR MAN – CRISTIANO RONALDO
Ronaldo will claim Portugal’s appearance record from Luis Figo at Euro 2016 but despite all the accolades and the fact he is seemingly always on hand to inspire them to qualify for major tournaments, he has never been able to translate his devastating club form into performances of note for the national team. His eight goals in 26 games at the World Cup and European Championship is simply not a good enough return for a player of his calibre. Not since he shone as a fresh-faced 19-year-old at Euro 2004 has he made waves at a major finals. Ronaldo is still at the very top of his game and, at his seventh major championship for Portugal, he will be hoping the number he has long worn on his back proves a lucky omen.
Even if Ronaldo is not fully firing, Portugal should sail through the group stage in first place. Beyond that, reaching the quarterfinals is a minimum expectation but really, a semi-final berth should await.
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