Minus Ronaldo Cristiano, European champions Portugal must overcome jittery starts

A more reliable measure of how their new status sits with them starts on Tuesday at Basel, where they play Switzerland in the first of their 2018 World Cup qualifiers, writes Ian Hawkey.
Portugal's first competitive since winning Euro 2016 in France in July is a 2018 World Cup qualifier away to Switzerland in Basel on Tuesday, September 6, 2016. David Josek / AP Photo
Portugal's first competitive since winning Euro 2016 in France in July is a 2018 World Cup qualifier away to Switzerland in Basel on Tuesday, September 6, 2016. David Josek / AP Photo

The badge of European champions thrusts a team up the international guest-list.

In the next 12 months Portugal, who won that title for the first time this summer in France, can expect some lucrative invitations, for friendlies and indeed for a debut Confederations Cup next year.

See more on 2018 World Cup qualifying:

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Their first outing as the continent’s kings, however, could hardly have been a greater mismatch. Last Thursday Gibraltar were the guests at Porto, and Europe’s best beat its weakest minnows 5-0.

Arrangements for the fixture had been advanced before July 10, when the Portuguese beat France in extra time north of Paris to put a new name on the Henri Delauney trophy.

A more reliable measure of how their new status sits with them starts on Tuesday at Basel, where they play Switzerland in the first of their 2018 World Cup qualifiers.

There are a number of key questions for manager Fernando Santos and the group of men with their freshly minted gold medals.

The first to ponder over the next six months is whether this generation of Portuguese players – buoyed by their triumph at Euro 2016 – can make a more accomplished start than usual in a qualification campaign.

Their history embarking on them is so peppered with jittery starts that late-summer nervousness looks like a congenital condition.

On the road to Euro 2012, a tournament where they reached the semi-finals, there was the early indignity of a 4-4 draw at home with Cyprus. En route to the last World Cup, they fell behind to Luxembourg in a September 2012 qualifier, and they took 40 minutes to restore order and sneak away with a 2-1 win. Their opening qualifier for Euro 2016 was a loss to Albania.

To reach three of the last four major finals tournaments, Portugal have needed a play-off, a scenario they are keen to avoid this time, but which will mean winning a group where Switzerland have reasonable ambitions of finishing top.

The swagger of champions ought to make Portugal less brittle. But swagger has not been a notable part of the successful formula established by the wise Fernando Santos, the manager who guided the nation to its greatest achievement in France.

Yes, he came in and corrected the habit of qualifying badly, and has a personal record of no defeats in 14 competitive matches in charge. But the wins on the way to the Euro 2016 finals were all by single-goal margins. Once in France, Portugal managed to win the tournament having won only one of their seven matches within 90 minutes.

Mostly, they were cautious, set up for counter-attack. Apart from a helter-skelter draw with Hungary – when six goals were scored – low on thrill.

The lack of a high-class specialist centre-forward has been a problem for some years. It is a lack compensated, of course, by having one of the great attacking players and goalscorers of the 21st century, Cristiano Ronaldo, on board.

Ronaldo misses the Switzerland match with injury. Time was that his absence in a fixture against a strong opponent would spread panic among the Portuguese.

But a culture shift took place in Saint-Denis on the night of July 10. Wounded early in the first half, Ronaldo was off the field for 95 minutes of the 120 in the Euro 2016 final. His team won it without their totem.

“Cristiano is a hugely important player for this and any team that has him,” experienced midfielder Joao Moutinho said. “But the squad is in a good place, and if we stick to what we have done well, we will be very hard to beat.

“We have to put the euphoria of the Euros aside now, and go into every match with a balance of ambition and humility.

“We are the European champions and that means everybody has an extra motivation to try and beat us,” he added.

Published: September 5, 2016 04:00 AM

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