Portugal survived, and Cristiano Ronaldo was the man who saved them—no change there, then—but after escaping from what was supposed to be a fairly simple Group F, the questions for manager Fernando Santos are multiplying.
The failure to beat any one of Iceland, Austria or Hungary is an alarming one for a nation that always comes into these tournaments considering itself among the elite.
Ronaldo’s presence means they usually feature in the blockbusting commercials that get everyone hyped up, but this has been a clear failure to live up to that hype from this Portuguese vintage.
Much of the focus might be on Ronaldo—because, well, he’s Ronaldo—but against Hungary, it was Santos’ defence that was all over the place.
All three of the Hungarians’ goals may have come from range—and there is little doubt that Balazs Dzsudzsak was fortunate with his two deflected efforts—but the uncertainty at the back from a side of such experience was disturbing, and it is possible to think that a better team would have made them pay by scoring a number of goals that even Ronaldo couldn’t pull back.
After fielding the same back four in the opening two matches of the tournament, Santos had to pick left-back Eliseu to face Hungary following an injury to Raphael Guerreiro, and although the 32-year-old Benfica man wasn’t solely to blame for the defensive disruption, he contributed to it.
Time and again Hungary piled forward, seemingly uninhibited by their status as the underdog.
Given that they’d already qualified, it was perhaps to be expected, but Portugal can’t afford to give the same chances to an impressive Croatia outfit when they meet in the last 16 in Lens on Saturday.
In previous times of strife, they’ve been able to call upon the cool head of Ricardo Carvalho to help them out of a hole, but the former Chelsea and Real Madrid centre-back looked every one of his 38 years against Hungary, seemingly losing the flight of the ball on more than one occasion and seeing his trademark sense of positioning elude him.
Alongside him, Pepe was nowhere near his best, while the thought remains that right-back Vieirinha is much better going forward than he is going the other way—something that is always a troubling trait for a defender.
And this was against Hungary, who have done well to finish top of the group but are hardly potential winners of the tournament. Santos' worries will be multiplying ahead of Saturday.
Given the way the top half of the draw has unfolded, Croatia—fresh from beating Spain—will fancy their chances to get to at least the semi-finals of an open-looking tournament, and you sense that only a Ronaldo masterclass could shoot them down at this moment.
But for Portugal’s captain to have his say, he’s going to need his team-mates to remain solid at the other end—with his reaction to Dzsudzsak’s second goal in Lyon, coming just five minutes after he’d drawn the sides level, speaking volumes.
Santos needs to make changes in his defence, and one of his primary ones could be removing Carvalho and picking Southampton’s Jose Fonte to start alongside Pepe at centre-back.
The Saints skipper is fresh from another successful season in the Premier League, where he was one of the competition’s strongest and most consistent defenders. He’s deserved this chance to start for his country for the first time at a major tournament, and he seems a better pick than Carvalho at present.
Elsewhere, Guerreiro has to return in place of Eliseu if he’s fit enough, while Fonte’s Southampton team-mate Cedric Soares could also be considered at right-back given how impressive the left-sided Ivan Perisic has been for Croatia thus far.
Santos must be considering all of these options, and he must know that he and his team are incredibly lucky to still be in this tournament, despite the fact that they are still unbeaten.
They might possess one of world football’s greatest-ever talents, but until they solidify the stage upon which he can perform, their time in France will be short-lived.