Portugal boss Fernando Santos hailed the “genius” of Cristiano Ronaldo after his stunning hat-trick beat Switzerland 3-1 to book the hosts a place in the Nations League final
Juventus forward Ronaldo opened the scoring at the Estadio do Dragao with a fine free-kick after 25 minutes.
Switzerland, though, equalised through a controversial penalty in the 56th minute, after German referee Felix Brych had initially awarded a spot-kick to Portugal for a foul on Bernardo Silva.
The official, though, went back to check a previous incident in the other area when Nelson Semedo had nudged Steven Zuber.
Following a long delay, while he watched replays on the pitchside monitor, Switzerland were given a spot-kick, which AC Milan defender Ricardo Rodriguez converted.
Ronaldo, however, had the final say when he struck twice during the closing three minutes to complete his treble with two brilliant low finishes past Yann Sommer.
England or Holland will await in Sunday’s final at the same Porto venue.
“In terms of adjectives to describe Ronaldo’s game – I have used many,” Santos said at a post-match press conference.
“I was his coach in 2003 and I could see where he would go. He is a genius. There is genius paintings and sculptures and he is a football genius.
“When someone scores three goals, they are the difference maker.”
Santos continued: “It was a tough game, it was well played – two sides who are very strong, playing to win.
“They are strategically well organised, changing their formation.
“We were anxious on the ball and I tried to fix this at half-time. The side improved towards the end of the game.
“They are skilled players who need the ball at their feet to show their quality.”
On the penalty controversy, Santos said diplomatically: “I am an advocate for VAR, I think it can be very helpful.”
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Marcus Rashford insists there will be no club loyalties blocking England’s path to potential Nations League glory this week.
The Three Lions face Holland in Guimaraes on Thursday in a semi-final clash, with either host country Portugal or Switzerland awaiting the winners in Sunday’s final.
Two victories would be enough to crown Gareth Southgate’s side as the first-ever winners of the Nations League and give England a first piece of major silverware since winning the World Cup in 1966.
Southgate’s preparations for the clash with the Dutch have been complicated by the fact both Liverpool and Tottenham reached the Champions League final.
Six of the 23 players in his squad were involved in Madrid on Saturday as Liverpool ran out 2-0 winners.
Reds skipper Jordan Henderson lifted the trophy as Trent Alexander-Arnold and Joe Gomez also collected winners’ medals, while Tottenham trio Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Eric Dier will need to overcome the huge disappointment of falling to defeat.
But Rashford believes the club mentality introduced since Southgate replaced Sam Allardyce in 2016 will hold strong as the squad come together looking to make history.
“It doesn’t matter whether you play for Tottenham or Liverpool or whoever,” the Manchester United forward said.
“While we’re here that doesn’t matter at all. We’ll battle for each other. That’s what’s special about this group, because that transition to international football seems to be very smooth.
“With Gareth being an ex-player he knows what it feels like going into camp. If it’s your first time and you don’t really know people it can be tough.
“He’s done everything bang-on and when we have new young players coming into the squad they just slide right in.
“He always says to us ‘When you’re in camp we want you to enjoy yourself.’ He wants it as close as it can be to how it is at a club.
“This is the closest I’ve ever felt to being at home. Basically it’s like your club, where you’d fight for the person next to you. It’s the exact same thing here.”
England reached the semi-finals of the World Cup last summer and, while lifting the Nations League may not compare to the success of winning such an established competition, Rashford is still keen to pick up international honours.
“It is new but the big teams will start to win it and put their names in its history,” he said of the Nations League.
“Then the tournament will rise and rise. It could become one of the important tournaments in international football.
“We’re a young team and we know that we’ve progressed but the best way of showing it is by winning something. This is an opportunity to get to a final and win something at the end of it. That will do us a lot of good.
“Since the World Cup we’ve beaten Croatia and Spain. You can see the improvement. We’ve started challenging the big teams, which is what you want to do. If we can take that into a tournament we’ll be flying.”
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And just like that, the 2018/19 season has drawn to a close at the club level, with Liverpool claiming their sixth European Cup after defeating Tottenham 2-0 in the last competitive game of the season.
As the South Americans prepare for the Copa America, Africa for AFCON while the rest of Europe gear up for Euro 2020 qualifiers, Portugal who face Switzerland, England clashing with Netherlands, have the UEFA Nations League semi-finals knocking at the door.
All teams – particularly the latter two – have named a young side and here we pick out some of the players under the age of 23 that you would want to keep an eye on.
TRENT ALEXANDER-ARNOLD (20) – England
Not many 20-year-olds can say they were heavily influential in overcoming a three-goal deficit against Barcelona in a Champions League semi-final and eventually won club football’s biggest prize.
Trent Alexander-Arnold’s wide passing range, high work-rate and accurate crossing were crucial to Liverpool’s success this season.
European euphoria still very fresh in his mind, it will be interesting to see how the youngster performs in an England jersey. Should he maintain the momentum, England will have acquired an absolute gem who could play a key role in the next two games.
Alexander-Arnold will be up against a highly motivated Memphis Depay, who often prefers the wing route as he makes his way to the centre. The flying Dutchman has been in fine form for country of late and this battle could have a huge say in the grander scheme of things.
MATTHIJS DE LIGT (19) – Netherlands
Still just a teenager, Ajax wonder-kid Matthijs de Ligt shows the maturity, composure and leadership qualities of a veteran. It’s only normal that top European clubs are fighting for his signature, willing to shell out a mammoth amount in the process.
A key figure in the Oranje’s rise to glory after a woeful run post the 2014 World Cup, the Ajax skipper must replicate his club form, which saw the Dutch giants claim a domestic double and a run to the Champions League semi-final.
Fortunately for the Dutch, the best young centre-back in the world is partnered by the best centre-back period in Virgil van Dijk.
Harry Kane and Marcus Rashford are far from their best at the moment, but it would be unwise to dismiss them as threats. Besides, Manchester City forward Raheem Sterling has enjoyed the best season of his career and could trouble the solid centre-back pairing.
JOAO FELIX (19) – Portugal
The latest addition to the long and rather cursed list labelled ‘Next Ronaldo’, Benfica forward Joao Felix is another both football fans and scouts will be watching closely.
From what he has displayed over the course of the season, the 19-year-old could just be the player to break the curse and successfully work his way to the top.
Versatility, ability to orchestrate coherent strings of play, great vision and the gift to play the perfectly weighted through-ball are just some of the arrows in Felix’s vast quiver.
He can play anywhere in the front-line but is most effective as a classic number 10 or a second striker. Keep an eye on his combination with Cristiano Ronaldo and how he provides for the Juventus star, should he make his senior international debut.
His performance in the Nations League could bump up his transfer value as both the Manchester clubs and Real Madrid attempt to add him to their ranks.
MANUEL AKANJI (23) – Switzerland
Tasked to stop the aforementioned deadly duo is Borussia Dortmund defender Manuel Akanji, the beating heart of the Swiss defence who will hope the Nations League can mend his broken ticker after the disappointment of missing out on the Bundesliga title.
Akanji was the standout defender for Lucien Favre. Indeed, it was no coincidence Dortmund’s downfall domestically and their collapse in the Champions League started taking shape between December and February when the Swiss international was sidelined through injury.
Akanji is press-resistant, great with the ball at his feet and boasts a healthy passing accuracy. He likes to play it short and safe, while helping maintain a neat defensive shape.
He has often been praised for his mature understanding of the game which has helped him perform at a high level even at such a young age.
JADON SANCHO (19) – England
Any list that contains the words ‘best’ and ‘young’ but does not speak about the prodigious Jadon Sancho is one that requires some serious revision. The Englishman has been one of the best players in Europe this season, regardless of age, and was the linchpin of Dortmund’s attack throughout 2018/19.
Sancho is technically gifted player with a wide range of abilities and a very high ceiling. With Rashford and Jesse Lingard enduring poor runs of form, it would be criminal to deny the versatile forward a starting role.
England will be up against one of the most solid centre-back pairings in the world but Sancho’s ability to step on the gas instantaneously and speed his way towards the opposition goal should provide them a good chance.
The Dortmund star is already an established name in the world of football, but this will be the first time he will encounter a sturdy defence while plying trades for England.