Who are the current contenders to become Portugal's next centreback pairing?
With attentions turning to Euro 2020 and Portugal's main, current centrebacks now deep into their 30s, the need to embed fresh blood into the side becomes increasingly important as the nation plans for life without some of their most experienced members.
Portugal's centreback situation, as discussed last week, is perhaps the main concern for the national team moving forward. With the average age of Portugal's centrebacks in their victorious Euro 2016 campaign an incredible 34.25, with three of the four centrebacks at that tournament - Pepe, Jose Fonte and Bruno Alves - also going to the 2018 World Cup, Portugal have clearly become increasingly reliant on experienced players in defence at major competitions in recent times, and the concern that we could be left with a young backline and a period of transition with all three main centrebacks approaching retirement age at a similar time is very real.
But, while the centreback situation may have been portrayed as nothing short of an impending disaster for the national team, it is far from all doom and gloom, and there is always cause for optimism, with some viable options for the future certainly emerging. Ruben Dias, for example, was the fourth central defender at the 2018 World Cup along with Pepe, Fonte and Alves and, while he didn't feature at all in the tournament, the 21-year old appears to have all the characteristics required to become a truly accomplished central defender in the future, and seems the most exciting prospect Portugal currently have in defence. However, the Benfica graduate has only played 24 senior matches in his entire career so far, all for the Lisbon club, while also only having just one international cap to his name, earned in a friendly match against Tunisia played only in May of this year.
Clearly still a raw talent with a long way to go, Portugal fans around the globe will all be praying that the physical centreback can reach the heights expected of him to help resolve the deepening defensive concerns evolving in the side.
With his lack of international experience also clear to see, more minutes with the national side playing alongside one of the more experienced defenders such as Pepe or Fonte over the next 18 months or so would be ideal to further his development and help him settle into the national team in preparation for his next decade of service.
The other contenders in Portugal's search for centreback supremacy
In addition to Dias, there is also Ricardo Ferreira of Braga who, now 25 years of age, should be hitting peak ability by the start of Euro 2020, and would have had a case to make the World Cup squad this year after a very solid season for the Minho club had it not been for the long-term injury he sustained in January that ruled him out for the rest of the season. However, already 25 and having only ever played for Portugal's first team on one occasion - in a 1-1 friendly draw against the United States in November 2017 - you would have hoped that a possible future national team centreback would have garnered more international experience by this point in his career.
Granted, Jose Fonte only made his tournament debut at the Euros in 2016, by which point he was already 32, much older than Ferreira currently is, and he did an excellent job in that campaign, playing a significant role in helping Portugal go all the way in the tournament and pick up the first piece of silverware in the nation's history. However, he was surrounded by highly experienced heads in the centre of defence, with the other three centrebacks being Pepe, who now has 99 caps to his name, Bruno Alves, who has 96, and Ricardo Carvalho, now on 89, meaning that his lack of international experience was heavily compensated for.
Indeed, there is that lingering concern that, with those that have been so dominant in Portugal's defence for such a sustained period of time all now approaching retirement age together, Portugal could suddenly be left in a situation where all their remaining centrebacks carry with them minimal experience for the senior national team. Far from ideal. The likes of Dias and Ferreira picking up international game time, while the experienced Pepe and Alves are still playing alongside them, could therefore be perceived as important for Portugal's future endeavours.
Edgar Ié is another option for Portugal, and would appear to be the natural successor to the current centrebacks in the squad, having played alongside Ruben Semedo in every match of the 2017 U21 European Championship in Poland. Playing for Lille in France though, who had the third worst defensive record in the entire league last season and only finished 17th in the process - just a single point above the relegation zone - doesn't offer much confidence. Additionally, now 24 and also with just a single senior cap to his name - a 35 minute showing versus Saudi Arabia in November - Ié is also unproven on the highest international stage.
Meanwhile, Ié's centreback partner at under-21 level, Ruben Semedo, also 24 and having only recently been released from prison after being arrested for several offences including kidnap, assault and attempted murder, has perhaps burnt all his bridges for a place in Portugal's main team, who he is yet to play a single game for.
This could, however, prove to be a huge year for Porto's 19-year old centreback Diogo Leite, who played in Porto's first game of the season last week, a 5-0 thrashing of Chaves, and could play a significant role for the club over the course of the season; having already represented the U21 national team on one occasion and won the U17 European Championship in 2016, Leite is an exciting prospect that should go on to have an excellent footballing career. His place in the national team in the decade to come seems like a safe bet, and he and Ruben Dias could go on to form a formidable partnership for Portugal. The Euros in 2020, however, is perhaps a tournament too soon for Leite, who has only one senior game for Porto. If he does go on to play a major part for Porto this season, though, he will be doing his chances no harm at all.
Additionally, another exciting young prospect is Fransisco Fereira - or Ferro - who, now 21, could consider himself somewhat unfortunate to have not yet made an appearance in Portugal's top flight. A physical presence with a good understanding of the game, Ferro could be set to make his first appearance for Benfica this season, having already played 72 times for the B team - and 7 times for the Portugal U21s. Again, Euro 2020 may be too soon for him, although his future for the national team is certainly worth watching out for.
Of course, an issue with these young talents is that, while they come across as the real deal and potential world beaters, whether they will actually make it, regardless of how good they immediately appear, is impossible to know for sure. For such an example, one could perhaps look no further than Roderick Miranda. While his move to Wolves last season was cause for optimism, with the 27-year old once considered a contender to get into the Portugal squad in the years to come, he endured a frustrating season at the newly-promoted English club and was subsequently sent out on loan to Olympiakos last week. Miranda is one player that never really hit the heights expected of him, and the hope of seeing him excel enough to become a future national team regular never came to fruition.
However, while it was disappointing to see that he was unable to have a significant impact at Molineux last campaign, hope is not all lost; indeed, if Miranda manages to perform to a high standard at the Greek outfit, there's every chance that he could still, even this late in his career, make his first appearance for the senior national team. But again, another player with absolutely no top-level international experience despite now being deep into his 20s.
Another more polished, experienced option - and arguably a defender that was perhaps chronically overlooked by managers of Portugal in the past - is Daniel Carriço, again a player who is significantly lacking international experience having played just 30-minutes worth of football for Portugal's senior side in his entire career (in a friendly victory against Italy) and has now recently turned 30.
Despite very limited game time and injury struggles in the last couple of seasons, Carriço played for Spanish outfit Sevilla 64 times in La Liga in the three seasons between 2013 and 2016, and, while he is still with the club now, did not get the recognition from national team manager Paulo Bento he perhaps merited during that time. He therefore doesn't appear to be a guaranteed future Portugal centreback either, especially with his injury record.
Other options include Paulo Oliveira, 24, at Eibar, Valencia's Ruben Vezo, also 24, Montpellier's 27-year old Pedro Mendes, and Tiago Ilori, 25, currently at English Championship side Reading. All talented footballers, but still only carrying a combined 1 senior international cap between them, emphasising the dominance the likes of Pepe, Jose Fonte and Bruno Alves have had over the last few years for Portugal, and thus the lack of opportunities for the other national team players.
Two other centrebacks that have played for Portugal somewhat regularly over the last few years are Rolando and Luis Neto. Two players that were on Portugal's standby list for the World Cup a couple of months ago, they are still certainly not suitable options for Portugal for the years to come and will not solve the centreback issue for the national team, with Rolando soon to turn 33 and Neto now 30. While they could serve as suitable short-term solutions, they are by no means set to play for Portugal for the next decade.
Illustration of the dominance of Pepe, Alves and Fonte this generation (number of caps per group of players).
As such, while there are many capable options in Portugal's ranks, the nation's centreback situation still remains in a state of unpredictability, with the future partnership to dominate the middle of defence for years to come and to take the country into the next era still rather unknown.