The defending champions have been placed in group of death alongside France, Germany and Hungary.
Portugal head to Euro 2020 as the defending champions and the favourites to retain the title. The tiny nation on the Atlantic side of the Iberian peninsula has been going through a golden period. The success that Portuguese fans have dreamed of since the arrival of their golden boy, has arrived. The push for a recognised title, came to a culmination with the Euro 2016 trophy and was quietly followed by a comprehensive victory in the inaugural UEFA Nations League.
For naysayers, what follows the success would be a significant dip in performances, similar to Spain or Germany in recent times. But for Portugal fans, hope persists. Their team heads into the 16th UEFA European Championship, with what is arguably their strongest squad in the history of the competition.
Euro 2016 Success
2016 was an unimaginable year for Fernando Santos and co. They began with a very questionable squad compared to the other giants. Portugal stuttered past their group stage with three draws in three matches. Then, they laboured to an extra-time victory over Croatia before Penalties got them past Poland.
Cristiano Ronaldo put an excellent exhibition against Wales before Eder’s extra-time long ranger stunned favourites and hosts France. It wasn’t pretty but the grit and grind paved the way for the Portuguese. The Fernando Santos-managed side lifted their first-ever international trophy. And now, five years later, they look improved, upgraded, ruthless and ready to retain their tags as Champions of Europe in Euro 2020.
The dynamics of the attack
A lot has changed since the tumble to the trophy. The alpha of the team has always been Ronaldo, who is ageing like fine wine. After a 31-goal season in the Serie A last year, he became the top scorer this season, with 29 goals in 33 matches for Juventus.
Although it is a far cry from his 2016 days, Ronaldo’s instincts would still be of immense importance for Santos. He couldn’t lead Juventus to the Serie A title but added a Coppa Italia title to his trophy cabinet.
Supporting him is Andre Silva, Diogo Jota and Joao Felix. Andre Silva is coming to Euro 2020 after a remarkable season in the Bundesliga, where he finished as second highest scorer. His 28 goals, come with a Negative xG differential (-2.40), meaning he has scored more goals than he was expected to.
Diogo Jota had to battle through injuries for the majority of this season but when he has been on the pitch, Jota has looked absolutely stunning for Liverpool and scored nine goals in 19 matches. Joao Felix proved instrumental in Atletico’s LaLiga title victory, scoring seven goals and creating five more.
The fluidity of the midfield
In midfield, creativity is of abundance. Bruno Fernandes and Bernardo Silva are highly capable ball players. While the former has been lighting up the Premier League up with solid performances for Manchester United, the latter endured a torrid start to the season to contribute heavily to Manchester City’s Premier League win as well as the run to the Champions League final.
Bruno led the Premier League in Key passes (94) as well as Expected assists (11.0) ahead of the likes of Kevin de Bruyne and Harry Kane.
The stabilizers and destructors in the middle of the park are in plenty as well. Renato Sanches comes to Euro 2020 having just helped in upstaging PSG from the pinnacle of French football. The Lille star had an amazing 83.2% passing accuracy to go along with one goal and three assists. Ruben Neves, on the other hand, has done a remarkable job at Wolves where he is fifth in successful tackles. Danilo Pereira and William Carvalho are young, energetic and dependable deep-lying destroyers as well. Veteran Joao Moutinho brings in a nice mix.
The wall that is the defense
The biggest improvement from 2016 comes in defense for Portugal. Ruben Dias established himself as one of the best defenders in the world after his display last season with Manchester City. A favourite to win the PFA Player of the Year, the center-back is equally smooth and solid. He has his club teammate Joao Cancelo, Wolves starlet Nelson Semedo and Borussia Dortmund’s Raphael Guerrero alongside him. All three are energetic full-backs with a mix of young blood and experience.
Add to this, the veteran duo of Jose Fonte, who belied his age by playing a vital role in Lille’s League 1 win and Pepe, who led Porto to the UCL quarterfinals, Portugal looks unbreakable.
Rui Patricio and Anthony Lopes have been making names for themselves at Wolverhampton Wanderers and Lyon respectively, two overachieving teams in their respective leagues.
A curious mix of young and old
A short comparison to the 2016 squad tends to overwhelmingly shift the scales towards the current squad. While there were big names in the team then, most of them were ageing stars. Nine players of the 23 then were above the age of 30. The current 26-man squad only has six veterans, but experienced ones at that. The likes of Andre Silva, Renato Sanches, Ruben Dias, Joao Felix and Diogo Jota who are poised to play important minutes for the side are all 25 or younger.
The only reason the Portuguese squad does not start as favourites is because of the similar upgrade underwent by the French squad. Being a part of a tough group involving the French and the Germans did not add to the glamour. But Portugal are as lively as ever. 2018 FIFA World Cup runners-up Croatia found it out the hard way.
A Ronaldo-less Portugal displayed some breathtaking football to blow Croatia aside four to one. Unlike their usual modus operandi, the win against the Croats came through brilliant team play and passing.
The squad upheaval also adds to another factor that is different from last year – Pressure. Santos and his men are expected to retain the trophy or at the very least pose a credible challenge. A ’stumble-and-tumble’ forward approach that was seen in 2016 would hardly be entertained by the fans.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s Swansong
This Euro could also be the last major tournament where Cristiano plays a major role in the starting XI. Nearing the end of his stellar career, the Juventus forward would be looking to sign off with a trophy. He will also be looking at this as a chance to prove his critics wrong once again.
This time, though, he will be on the field with what is arguably the best supporting cast ever in his prolific international career.