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.
It’s perhaps a little premature to call Marcel Koller’s side the ‘Golden Generation’, but they are not far off. A lack of genuine world-class players has held back previous versions of the Austrian team but they now have dynamism and style, spearheaded by Bayern Munich’s David Alaba. It is frightening that at 23, the versatile star is able to take on such a huge level of responsibility – and thrive.
One of the most impressive sides during the qualification process, they turned heads with a 4-1 victory over Sweden to indicate the promise within this squad. And Alaba is not their only player with talent either. It’s important to point out that of the 12 Austrians to have ever played in the Premier League four of them are currently doing so (Stoke’s Marco Arnautovic is joined by Leicester’s Christian Fuchs, Tottenham’s Kevin Wimmer and Watford’s Sebastian Prodl in the squad).
Austrian football is on the crest of a wave and it could well culminate in a surprise run at this championship. They will duel with Portugal to top the standings but qualification to the knockouts should be smooth regardless in one of the kinder groups in the competition with Hungary and Iceland sandwiching the clash against the Portuguese. From there, anything is possible for this side but they can take encouragement that the thrilling talent at Koller’s disposal is one that can be built upon for the next decade.
After all, they wereable to defeat Russia twice in qualification, even without the injured Alaba. Every major tournament sees a new name emerge and in France, that could very well be the Austrians. Koller’s 4-2-3-1 formation relies on a high pressing game and he implores his charges to play with plenty of energy.
With that style of play and the talent in the squad, they’re sure to make an impact.
Koller’s side are on a thrill ride – the complete antithesis of stodgy teams of old. They came through qualifying with two games to spare thanks to an entertaining and attack-minde midfield. Martin Harnik, Zlatko Junuzovic and Marko Arnautovic’s clever interchanging is the hallmark of this team, alongside the incessant and world-class David Alaba. A well balanced, organized and tough outfit.
If they’re lacking options and quality in one area, it would be up front. Veteran striker Marc Janko struck seven times during qualifying but he’s their sole goalscorer. It’s a big risk to rely on the 32-year-old to fire them through the tournament. While their first 11 is as strong and competitive as any, the squad lacks depth and any potential injuries would be crippling.
STAR MAN – DAVID ALABA
Still only 23, he is easily the most recognizable star in this impressive Austrian team. Bayern Munich have exploited his versatility as he’s emerged as not only one of the best left-backs in world football, but also as a solid centre-half, a dynamic midfielder and a creative No10. He’s used primarily in midfield for his country where his eye for a goal, tough tackling and energetic passing have made him a central figure.
They topped Group G in impressive, undefeated style during qualifying, capped by the 4-1 battering of Sweden. They have hopes of making an impact in France and this group offers them a chance to progress.
This tournament has all the dangerous hallmarks of the disastrous Euro 2012 for the republic of Ireland. And nobody involved with the current set-up will want a repeat. Submerged in a group which contains European heavyweights Belgium, Italy and Sweden the aim here is to better their abysmal collection of zero points, one goal and nine conceded four years ago when they were paired with Spain, Croatia and the Azzurri.
Their fans were undoubtedly the highlight of tournament washing Poland and Ukraine in a sea of green because on the pitch they were meek and completely unambitious. That shouldn’t be the case this time around though. While again it is difficult to see them make it through the toughest group in the competition, they will no doubt be one of the hardest working sides, a sentiment typified by their whirlwind striker Shane Long.
They got through the play-off with Bosnia & Herzegovina without him but having the Southampton frontman back in the fold is a huge positive. He may not have the standout quality of record goalscorer Robbie Keane, but his relentless work ethic and ability to hold the ball up is crucial for a side which will find itself pinned back defensively.
Behind Long in a likely 4-5-1 formation, they have a solid base as James McCarthy and Glenn Whelan will run themselves into the ground to protect the defence, a necessity because they do cede possession to the opposition.
While the Irish headed into Euro 2012 without any real cohesion, Martin O’Neill and Roy Keane – the self proclaimed good-cop, bad-cop pairing – have created an entirely different atmosphere this time around. An early end seems inevitable again but they do have the ability to produce the unexpected – just ask world champions Germany who they drew with and beat during qualification.
Much like their fanbase, this side works together as a unit. They defend resolutely and are tough to break down but that doesn’t mean the boys in green are as negative as they were under previous boss Giovanni Trapattoni. They do lean on the creative side, too, through Jeff Hendrick, Robbie Brady and Wes Hoolahan. And of course, they are rich with experience.
They simply don’t have any genuine stand-out names. Yes, Seamus Coleman, James McCarthy and Shane Long are talented players but they just miss that sprinkling of star quality. The heart of the defence is a concern as well with the pairing of John O’Shea and Richard Keogh hardly screaming pace.
STAR MAN – SEAMUS COLEMAN
You have to consider Everton’s season as a write off with the full-back hardly enjoying his best campaign to date. However, for Ireland he remains an outstanding attacking rightback. Technically, there’s few who match him in this Ireland squad and his contribution going forward with lung-bursting runs are crucial on the counter. He didn’t even make Giovanni Trapattoni’s cut for Euro 2012 and will no doubt be out to make his mark at this year’s tournament.
Not finishing bottom will be seen as a success after Euro 2012’s failings. It’s a tough ask to progress against Belgium, Italy and Sweden. Clinching third will very much depend on the opener with Sweden.