Euro 2020: history could yet repeat itself as Portugal stumble their way through group stage

Fernando Santos' side can advance even if they lose to France on Wednesday

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Portugal have been here before, their destiny undecided as they flirt with humiliation. Perhaps the experience will stand them in good stead. Certainly they know that group-stage stumbles are not always proof of how a team will fare at the business end of a tournament. As Euro 2016 showed, sometimes it does not matter how a team qualifies, providing they do.

Portugal limped through in third place with three points then. Beneficiaries of a bloated competition’s unwieldy process for eliminating a mere eight teams then progressed to become champions of Europe. History could yet repeat itself. Defeat to France on Wednesday could probably still let Portugal advance as one of the four best third-place teams, but they would be dependent on goal difference and on Hungary not beating Germany.

The mathematics looked altogether simpler when Cristiano Ronaldo swept them into a lead against Joachim Low’s side. The focus on figures could be concentrated on their captain’s relentless accumulation of records. It was Portugal’s fourth goal in 22 minutes of football, three of them in the dramatic finish against Hungary.

Conceding four in 25 minutes to Germany transformed each side's tournament and dented Portugal's reputation for defensive excellence. Fernando Santos is a safety-first strategist and his use of dual defensive midfielders, in Danilo and William Carvalho, has been contentious. It backfired when Germany bypassed them by transferring the ball quickly to the flanks in a game decided by the wing-backs Joshua Kimmich and Robin Gosens.

France represent intimidating opponents in most respects. The 38-year-old Pepe may not relish a sprint against Kylian Mbappe. And yet, as Karim Benzema continues his pursuit of a first international goal since 2015, France’s star-studded strike trio, also including Antoine Griezmann, are scarcely renowned for hugging the touchlines.

Their three midfielders operate in the middle. Their full-backs are not natural attackers. They may struggle to replicate the Germans’ gameplan and expose Portugal’s problems on the flanks. Santos might want to persist with his double pivot rather than starting the more vibrant Renato Sanches.

They met in the Nations League last autumn. France only scored one goal, courtesy of N’Golo Kante, over 180 minutes and while Portugal got none, another similarly close encounter could at least have the benefit of sending the holders through.

That felt typical Portugal. That 4-2 defeat to Germany could be compared to the 3-3 draw with Hungary in 2016, an outbreak of chaos for a team who prefer control. The 2016 campaign poses questions if it is a sustainable formula; no one else has ever won a European Championships without winning a group-stage game. Now, besides Ronaldo’s relentlessness and the sharpness of his strike partner Diogo Jota, are enough of the markers for success in place?

“It didn't go well in the last game,” admitted Joao Moutinho. “We weren't the best in the first game either.”

Bruno Fernandes has not reproduced his Manchester United form, whether because of fatigue or because he is not granted his preferred role as a No 10. Bernardo Silva was taken off at half-time against Germany; perhaps Rafa Silva, a catalytic substitute against Hungary, might be emerging as an alternative. The own goals Ruben Dias and Raphael Guerreiro scored on Saturday were evidence of confusion at the back.

Dias, Fernandes and Bernardo Silva were, like Jota and Andre Silva, evidence that Portugal possess more talent than the team that conquered Europe five years ago. They might be less reliant on Ronaldo to drag them on by force of personality. Yet when he has three goals and an assist, Portugal find themselves in a game of brinkmanship once again, dreaming of glory but risking the embarrassment of the earliest of exits.