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Portugal at the 2018 World Cup – did we expect more from the European Champions?

Portugal at the 2018 World Cup – did we expect more from the European Champions?

Portugal were eliminated from the World Cup after a 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in the round of 16, marking a third consecutive tournament that the nation failed to reach the quarter finals of football’s largest worldwide event.

Portugal, ranked fourth in the FIFA World Rankings going into the World Cup, last made it past the second stage of the World Cup in 2006, where a star-studded Seleção reached the semi-finals, being knocked out at the hands of eventual champions France after a 1-0 defeat courtesy of a Zinedine Zidane penalty.

Portugal went on to finish fourth that World Cup - losing the third-place playoff 3-1 to hosts Germany – which marked Portugal’s second best ever finish in World Cup history, just behind Portugal’s third-place triumph in 1966.

For a nation with a population of just over 10 million, Portugal’s footballing exploits this century are undeniably impressive, particularly on the European stage, and having too often been the nearly-men of football, Portugal’s Euro 2016 triumph was both the greatest moment in Portugal’s footballing history, and a significant weight lifted from the shoulders of a football-mad nation craving the taste of success.

It’s a moment that will live fondly in the memory of every ‘Tuga across the world that was privileged enough to have witnessed Eder’s stunning strike ripple the back of the net in Paris on that glorious night, finally, and eternally, sealing Portugal’s name in the history books as one of just a handful of nations able to claim to have once been ‘Kings of Europe’.

By all accounts, the probability of Portugal’s 2016 endeavours ever being topped, at least in our generation, is slim; having endured decades of waiting for the taste of success, the hope of seeing the nation lift a trophy was no doubt starting to fade, and indeed many never got the opportunity to truly experience the ultimate success first-hand, having passionately followed Portugal well into their senior years with no title coming to fruition.

However, optimism in Portugal is always high, and with ‘The Engineer’ Fernando Santos at the helm - who had, rather remarkably, only lost one competitive football match in 27 games heading into the World Cup (a qualifier against Switzerland, which was followed by nine victories on the bounce) - and the presence of one of the greatest footballers of all time in Cristiano Ronaldo, himself surrounded by many highly capable players, the ambitious dream of witnessing Portugal become World Champions for the first time ever was firmly taking over the nation.

Yet a 2-1 loss to Uruguay meant Portugal’s journey came to an end only 15 days after it had begun. It was a notable improvement on the exploits of the previous European Champions, Spain, who crashed out in the group stage of the World Cup in 2014 having only won the Euros two years earlier, but Portugal certainly failed to live up to the expectations of the country.

There is no shame in losing to Uruguay, a country with immense footballing pedigree, in addition to a strike partnership that most clubs, let alone nations, could only dream of having. That, coupled with an incredibly resolute defence led by Atletico Madrid duo José Giménez and Diego Godín, made them a match for any side. Indeed, Uruguay went into the match against Portugal having won every match they had played this calendar year – seven fixtures in total - not conceding a single goal in the process.

However, while an undoubtedly impressive stat, it should be noted that the level of opposition they faced in that time was not of the highest calibre, playing the likes of Uzbekistan, Czech Republic, Saudi Arabia and Egypt to achieve their winning start to the year.

And while this World Cup succeeded in surprising throughout the competition – with Germany crashing out in the group stage, and both Spain and Argentina also failing to advance beyond the round of 16 – Portugal will have fancied their chances of putting the disappointment of the 2014 World Cup behind them.

With talent evident throughout the team – a world-class goalkeeper between the sticks in newly-recruited Wolves signing Rui Patricio, an experienced defence boasting the solid and consistent Pepe, and an attacking force including the Trivela King Ricardo Quaresma, ‘bubble gum’ boy Bernardo Silva and five-time Balon d’Or victor Cristiano Ronaldo – the blend of experience and youth seemed to indicate the potential for one of Portugal’s best ever World Cup finishes.

Lack of match fitness could have been responsible

The cause of Portugal’s failure is ultimately not impossible to pinpoint; while Portugal looked solid defensively, even if not spectacular, and were able to find the back of the net in every match they played in the entire tournament, the lack of game time throughout the previous season for a number of key players could explain Portugal’s early exit, with simply keeping the ball a real difficulty early in the tournament, notably in the Morocco match. The likes of Raphaël Guerreiro, André Silva, José Fonte, João Mário and Adrien Silva, for example, all came off disappointing seasons where game time was sparse and match sharpness was lacking.

This lack of competitive minutes certainly looked to take its toll on Guerreiro, who struggled significantly with the defensive side of his game, with no better example than Portugal’s group stage clash with Morocco where Nordin Amrabat constantly tested, and beat, Portugal’s left back, who always looked uncomfortable. Only the exploits of Cédric Soares, Pepe and, to his credit, José Fonte, in addition to Rui Patricio’s heroics, meant Portugal weren’t severely punished for Guerreiro’s difficulties.

The lack of showing from Portugal’s two striking options to play alongside Cristiano Ronaldo could also be seen as a significant factor in Portugal’s inability to leave a mark on this campaign, with both Gonçalo Guedes and André Silva failing to impress on the global stage. Neither finished the tournament with a goal to their name, and the fact that both were used interchangeably during the tournament shows that even Fernando Santos was uncertain which of the pair slotted into Portugal’s team better alongside Ronaldo.

Lacking experience up front?

It’s easy to be critical in hindsight, and many Portugal fans may dispute this suggestion, but in all likelihood Portugal were missing the presence of Nani up top who shone so brightly at the Euros. Granted, he himself didn’t have the most spectacular of seasons at Lazio, and many would point to both Bruma and Rony Lopes as better alternatives to the veteran forward, but Nani is a player that always seems to show up for the national side and is a natural leader on the pitch who would no doubt have taken some of the burden off the shoulders of talisman Cristiano.

It is commendable that both manager Santos and the fans were keen to embed younger, hungry players into the Portugal side in preparation for future tournaments, but leaving behind one of Portugal’s greatest ever players in Nani who would have had much to offer the team both on and off the pitch, could have been a pivotal reason in Portugal’s disappointing showing overall, with neither Guedes or Andre Silva looking ready to take his place in what was both of their inaugural major competitions at senior level.

In any case, while the people of Portugal will undoubtedly be proud of the side and their efforts in Russia, the inquest goes on as to why the reigning European champions didn’t last longer in a competition that promised much but delivered little.

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