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Portugal Go from Triumph to Planning Post-Cristiano Ronaldo Future

Andy Brassell@@andybrassellFeatured ColumnistSeptember 6, 2016

Cristiano Ronaldo's role in the Euro 2016 final ended up being a peripheral, albeit eye-catching, one.
Cristiano Ronaldo's role in the Euro 2016 final ended up being a peripheral, albeit eye-catching, one.FRANCK FIFE/Getty Images

Fifty-eight days. That’s the gap between the apex of Portugal’s footballing achievementwinning the Euro 2016 finaland their next competitive match, as they start out on the road to Russia in a 2018 World Cup qualifier in Switzerland.

Barely has the ticker tape floated down from the sky to the ground and Fernando Santos’ team are back grinding.

That’s how it happens, as Italy’s 2006 World Cup winners could tell you. Having edged out France to lift the trophy in Berlin, they were given a chasing by the same opposition 59 days later in a visceral Euro 2008 qualifier in front of a full house at the Stade de France.

Santos and his players will aim to avoid a similar uncomfortable return to competitive football in Basel.

It is unlikely to be easy. St Jakob-Park is one of the underrated atmospheres in European football, and it will bubble with intent on a night like this.

Portugal have played there twice before, and lost both times—both in Euro 2008, when their second-string side were rolled over by the Swiss in a group dead-rubber, before Luiz Felipe Scolari’s team were subsequently swept away by a stylish Germany in a quarter-final at the same venue.

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Moreover, Vladimir Petkovic’s players have given the impression in the buildup to the game that they have a point to prove. Blerim Dzemaili, for example, said Portugal were “lucky” to win the Euros at the squad’s training camp last week (as reported here by Mais Futebol, in Portuguese), pointing out their inability to win any of their group games as they scraped through to the knockout stage.

Nani and Quaresma will continue to play key roles for their country.
Nani and Quaresma will continue to play key roles for their country.Gualter Fatia/Getty Images

The Bologna midfielder’s arguments aren’t without foundation. Few teams win major tournaments without luck, and it’s not news to anyone that the margins between success and failure are fine ones.

The thrust of Dzemaili’s sentiment was that Switzerland had been just a penalty shootout away (or, perhaps more accurate, a sliced Granit Xhaka spot-kick away) from facing Portugal in the Marseille quarter-final in Poland’s stead.

The Swiss sense of "it could have been us" is the first example of Portugal’s new status as a target. Not only are they there to be shot at as European champions, but opponents who feel that they weren’t especially "deserving" winners will take great delight in doing so.

Though they can count on the support of a sizeable Portuguese expat community in Switzerland, the start to their qualifying campaign is fraught with danger.

So Santos is smart to make only minor changes to his personnel and—we expect—no changes to his approach at all.

The coach was unapologetic in response to criticisms of Portugal’s style during the Euros, of course. "It doesn't bother me or the players at all,” he said just before the semi-final with Wales, per Reuters (h/t the Evening Standard). “Would I like us to be pretty? Yes. But, in between being pretty and being at home, or being ugly and being here, I prefer to be ugly."

More specifically, the 4-4-2 which served them so well in France will continue, with Ricardo Quaresma and Nani leading the attack in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, as the captain nears the end of his recovery from the knee injury that forced him from the field in the Saint-Denis final in tears.

As we’ve discussed in this column before, that tactical system was built specifically to serve Ronaldo—to save him running the channels too much, to get him support in a largely safety-first plan (support which Nani provided expertly during the tournament in France), and to mainly keep him in central areas.

So rather than moving on from Ronaldo, there’s a sense of place-warmingfor now, at least.

Euro 2016 goal hero Eder received a warm reception in the Gibraltar friendly, but he is unlikely to start against Switzerland.
Euro 2016 goal hero Eder received a warm reception in the Gibraltar friendly, but he is unlikely to start against Switzerland.Paulo Duarte/Associated Press/Associated Press

Moving back to 4-4-2 is an indication, too, that the real business is starting.

Not many conclusions can be drawn from Thursday’s 5-0 friendly win over Gibraltarnot least because of the quality of the oppositionbut the system used there, almost a return to 4-3-3, had a sense of the temporary as the champions essentially enjoyed an extended celebration, rather than an especially intense workout.

The switch allowed Santos to include Eder from the start, a popular move in front of the crowd in Porto, giving them a chance to salute the man who scored the historic winner in the final.

The 28-year-old hasn’t looked razor sharp at the start of this season for Lille OGC (his two assists officially recorded include one fluffed control gobbled up by team-mate Younousse Sankhare), and he missed a couple of presentable chances at the Estadio do Bessa to punish Gibraltar further.

Eder will continue to pitch in as a useful squad member, but his moment in the sun will not transform his fortunes at international level.

When it comes to supplementing and eventually replacing Ronaldo, a centre-forward successor has already been anointed. Andre Silva made his senior debut as a half-time substitute for Eder against Gibraltar, and caught the eye.

The 20-year-old, who has started the season superbly for Porto, looked at home straight away, and cleverly created the third goal for fellow debutant Joao Cancelo (Cancelo was the only inclusion in the starting XI who hadn’t been involved in France, underlining the squad’s stability). 

Andre Silva, left, celebrates with Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva in the Gibraltar match.
Andre Silva, left, celebrates with Joao Cancelo and Bernardo Silva in the Gibraltar match.Paulo Duarte/Associated Press/Associated Press

We must exercise a degree of caution, though; the last next great Portugal No. 9, Nelson Oliveira, is now attempting to rebuild his career with Norwich City in the English second tier having faded since a series of promising cameos in Euro 2012.

Silva looks to have his head screwed on, though, and perhaps more importantly, the task of eventually replacing Ronaldo—on either a permanent or a temporary basis—is not as daunting as it once might have been.

That’s one of Santos' greatest achievements in charge of the national side to date. He’s not only created a system to allow an ageing Ronaldo to continue to produce his best, he’s created a genuine team ethic around him so there is a seismic shift is the balance of the side’s strength.

When Ronaldo left Manchester United in 2009, Sir Alex Ferguson was faced with the impossibility of replacing one player who filled several different roles. When the time comes at international level, his replacement will not face the same demands.

Fitting in the group’s burgeoning creative talents will be next. Bernardo Silva, recovered from the injury which sidelined him from the Euros, brought his excellent early-season fettle from AS Monaco into the Gibraltar game and scored his first Portugal goal. Playmaker Rafa, fresh from joining Benfica, will aim to weigh more heavily in the coming qualifiers as well.

For now, those are minor issues. Portugal, still minus Ronaldo, must show how they’re moving away from relying on their talisman in order to overcome the Swiss. In other words, they need to carry on where they left off in the final.

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