Portugal U21s teetering on the edge of Euro 2019 elimination before it has even begun - what is the situation for this talented generation?
Portugal are on the brink of failing to qualify for next year’s U21 European Championship despite another emerging generation stacked with talent - so what is going wrong for this generation of Portuguese football and what is the current situation?
It is a competition that Portugal have qualified for 8 times, all of those appearances coming in the past 24 years, and have reached the final of on two separate occasions - the first back in 1994 and then, far more recently, in 2015. Yet Portugal, despite being handed a less than menacing group in their bid to qualify for yet another European competition, have somehow ended up with qualification out of their hands.
Sitting in third place on 16 points from 8 games, Portugal are two point behind Bosnia and Herzegovina with a game in hand but, more concerningly, are also two points behind Romania, who have also played 8 games. And, having already lost and drawn against Romania in this qualification stage, it means that Romania only need 4 points from their last two games against Wales and Liechtenstein to guarantee they finish above Portugal in the table.
It means that Portugal, who were the pot 1 side in the group and ranked as the 2nd best team in all of Europe heading into the qualifying campaign, will almost certainly have to settle for second place in the group at best - and even that may not be enough.
Indeed, even if Portugal do cement their place as second in the table by beating both Bosnia and Herzegovina and Liechtenstein, they could still face elimination, with only the four best second-place outfits advancing to the play-off stage. With nine groups in total, it means just over half the second place teams won’t make the cut.
As such, the least Portugal need to do to have a chance to qualify is beat both Liechtenstein and Bosnia, and perhaps score a few goals in the process.
Winning the final two games would guarantee that Portugal finish above the group 2, group 4 group 5 and group 9 runners-up in the second-place table, but they would still need to jump above two other nations to gain a place in the play-off.
Portugal have hope that that could happen though, with Denmark and Poland - who sit 1st and 2nd on 19 and 18 points respectively in group 3 - still having to play each other, meaning that the absolute maximum the second place side in the group could reach is 22 points, which is the total Portugal will amass if they win their final two games. It would then come down to goal difference, with Portugal’s marginally worse when disregarding the results against the last place teams.
There’s then group 6 where every side has just one game remaining and both Belgium and Sweden are guaranteed the top two spots in their group, but who grabs the top spot and who has to settle for second is still to be determined, with both sides still having to play each other. Belgium have 23 points, while Sweden have just 20 points, meaning that anything but a Sweden victory will see Portugal jump above the Swedes in the second-place table so long as Portugal do their part and win their final two qualifying matches.
With Austria in group 7 sitting on just 18 points in second place and still having to play top side Serbia away and third place Russia at home, there’s also a very strong possibility that they will not be able to get any more than 22 points as the second place side. As a result, all hope is not lost for Portugal to still making the play-offs, although it is not guaranteed and would still require victory in a two-legged tie with another high-ranked second place team to confirm qualification.
Where has it gone wrong for Portugal? With a talented team and a manager in Rui Jorge that has been praised by large sections of Portugal fans, there is no way that they should be in such a precarious position, but with a vulnerable-looking defence and an inability to convert chances, Portugal have been undone by both Bosnia and Romania this campaign, and even against Wales looked incredibly susceptible defensively, and were fortunate to come out of the game with their clean sheet intact.
The attacking talent on offer for Portugal may be what manages to drag them over the line, led by captain Diogo Jota, in addition to young Benfica duo Joao Filipe and Joao Felix and Nottingham Forest trio Diogo Goncalves, Joao Carvalho and Gil Dias.