As they bid to defend their title at Euro 2020, it is fair to say that Portugal did not look like potential winners of Euro 2016 during the group stage. Cristiano Ronaldo and co. drew all three games in a seemingly weak section featuring Hungary, Iceland and Austria. They squeezed through as one of the best third-place finishers but were the only team in the last 16 who had failed to win a match beforehand.
They still had not won a match within 90 minutes by the time the quarter-finals rolled around, having required an extra-time goal from Ricardo Quaresma to get past Croatia in the first knockout round. Something similar occurred in the quarters, as Fernando Santos’ side overcame Poland on penalties after a 1-1 draw.
By then, the tournament had opened up for Portugal. Drawn against Wales in the semi-finals, Portugal registered their first victory in regulation time thanks to quick-fire goals from Ronaldo and Nani. They were underdogs in the final against France – and even more so when Ronaldo was withdrawn through injury early on – but Portugal successfully contained the host nation and then struck a decisive blow through the unlikely figure of Eder in extra time.
Euro 2016 was Portugal’s first ever success at a major tournament and they will be looking to repeat the feat five years on at Euro 2020. Spain won back-to-back Euros in 2008 and 2012, but no other side has done so in the history of the competition. There is reason to believe that Portugal could follow in the footsteps of their neighbours this summer, even if the holders have not really been mentioned in the same breath as France, Belgium and England in discussions about the favourites.
The squad at Santos’ disposal in 2021 is much stronger than it was in 2016. Ronaldo is now 36-years-old but has shown few signs of slowing down when it comes to putting the ball in the back of the net. Crucially, Portugal now have an excellent support cast which should allow the main man up top to conserve his energy for the most important moments.
That support cast includes Bruno Fernandes, who has been a revelation since joining Manchester United in January 2020, Bernardo Silva and Diogo Jota. It could be argued that Jota, with his injection of speed and directness, is the key man in this attack, which will be configured in either a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 formation depending on Fernandes’ exact positioning.
There is a solid base behind that quartet, with Danilo Pereira and William Carvalho set to be tasked with breaking up opposition attacks and controlling possession. The veteran figure of Joao Moutinho can be called upon from the bench if Santos needs someone to take the sting out of a game, while Renato Sanches – the breakthrough star of Euro 2016 – is coming off the back of an excellent season at Ligue 1-winning Lille.
If this Portugal team has a weakness at Euro 2020, it is at the back. Ruben Dias has emerged as one of the best centre-halves on the continent at Manchester City this term. He will be partnered by the 38-year-old Pepe, whose deputy is the 37-year-old Jose Fonte. It is inevitable that some will be concerned by the age of those two players, but neither has looked over the hill during their club seasons with Porto and Lille.
Joao Cancelo will be deployed at right-back and Raphael Guerreiro at left-back. Both players are better going forward than they are defensively and opposition wingers will no doubt look to take advantage of the space in behind both players in phases of transition. Santos must find a way to provide adequate cover when his full-backs push forward.
Portugal have been drawn in the Euro 2020 group of death alongside France, Germany and Hungary. Yet there is an argument that Santos’ side are better suited to playing the bigger teams, who will defend with higher lines and not simply camp 10 men behind the ball. Five years on from their triumph at Euro 2016, Portugal look to have a reasonable chance of defending their crown.
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