Can Portugal defend their European crown?
Background photo: CC BY-SA 3.0
As Euro 2020 qualifying gathers shape, it is a good time to dissect the defending champions. Portugal pulled off a minor shock to lift the trophy three years ago in France. Fernando Santos’ side have sights on retaining it next summer.
Cristiano Ronaldo remains Portugal’s talisman. His 93-goal haul in internationals is only bettered by former Iranian striker, Ali Daei. At 34, though, the five-time Ballon d’Or winner is reaching his end game. He may retire from international football after the Euros. Until then, his experience has a key role to play.
Fortunately for the Portuguese, they have attacking talent to assist Ronaldo. That hasn’t always been the case. In previous times, CR7 was expected to go it alone. Now, there are Joao Felix and Bernardo Silva, two players capable of helping their national team achieve further success.
The strength in Portugal's pool means senior players dropping out to accommodate youth. In addition to Felix, 19, centre-back Ruben Dias, midfielder Ruben Neves and winger Goncalo Guedes, all 22, are the future. All four were developed at either Benfica or Porto. It's a testament to the Primeira Liga.
The 2018 World Cup arrived too early. Portugal lost out to Uruguay in the last 16. Since then, they've tasted Nations League success, defeating the Netherlands in the final. The manner of that victory and team chemistry proved Santos' men are going places.
After a slow start to their Euro 2020 qualification campaign, Portugal showed their class recently. A 4-2 win away at Serbia followed by a convincing 5-1 victory over Lithuania, a game in which Ronaldo netted four times, puts them second in the group behind Ukraine. With two of their remaining four matches against minnows Luxembourg as well as Lithuania to face again, progression to next summer's main event is almost certain.
Portugal's hunger and drive provide motivation to retain their European crown. To do so, they must hit top form. They'll face stern competition from teams which are looking dangerous right now. Spain and Germany are building formidable sides. Both currently top their qualifying groups. Then there's France to consider, the world champions. The Netherlands are potential contenders, too. Perhaps also Belgium, Italy, Croatia and England.
To stand a chance against such opposition, Portugal must continue on their current route. Santos has tapped into a smart plan, blending players from many different club set-ups. In his most recent 25-man squad, 16 clubs were represented and nine European leagues.
Another key factor is Portugal's technically-gifted players. Bernardo Silva regularly shines at Manchester City, featuring alongside world-class attackers such as Raheem Sterling and Sergio Aguero. Felix, still at the beginning of his Atletico Madrid career, continues to excel as one of Europe's greatest prospects.
Santos is relying on experience as well. Pepe, 36, can be called on at the back to lead the likes of Nelson Semedo and Dias. Midfielders William Carvalho and Joao Moutinho, who have 59 and 117 caps respectively, are important to enabling Bruno Fernandes and Neves to flourish fully.
With Ronaldo's ability to win games single-handedly boasting Portugal's balanced, talented squad, much is expected of them at Euro 2020. This team is arguably Europe's best at present. Defending their crown come July is an achievable ambition.