Portugal vs Croatia: Preview and expected lineup of the new-look Seleção
Portugal take on the World Cup runners-up tonight in what is sure to be an intriguing encounter.
While Croatia surprised the world by achieving an outstanding run to the final, Portugal, the current European champions, had a far less successful campaign, only reaching the round of sixteen where they were knocked out by Uruguay.
However, this Portugal side has a new-look to them, potentially kick-starting the next cycle of players to represent the nation at senior level.
So what can we expect from this clash?
Youthful front line: no Ronaldo, no party?
Portugal have lost their biggest weapon, 5-time Balon d'Or winner Cristiano Ronaldo, to lead the line in the upcoming fixtures, with the Juventus forward being rested to sustain fitness levels.
With his absence also comes the omission of experienced forwards Ricardo Quaresma and Nani, replaced instead with the much younger duo of Rony Lopes and Bruma. Two excellent players, but leadership and experience in the offensive section of the game is in very short supply.
Indeed, the average age of the options Portugal have in the attacking area is, quite incredibly, just 22.5, with Bernardo Silva, aged 24, the oldest attacking player Portugal have at their disposal. The other forwards Portugal have in their squad are Goncalo Guedes (21), Andre Silva (22), Rony Lopes (22), Gelson Martins (23) and Bruma (23). While that could be perceived as concerning, it is exciting in equal measure, with a wealth of talent still on display and over a decade of their footballing career still to come. Now is the best time to experiment and give some young talent an opportunity to show what they can do - and the fact that Portugal have so many accomplished young stars available is truly outstanding for the future of the national team.
Four potential debutants
Several other players in Portugal's squad are also incredibly inexperienced at the highest level of international football - with the likes of Rony Lopes and Ruben Dias with just 1 cap to their name and Bruma (2), Mario Rui (4) and Ruben Neves (5) with just a handful of international appearances - and there are no fewer than four players preparing for their debuts with the senior national team.
Claudio Ramos is one of those, likely an unknown quantity outside Portugal, but the Tondela goalkeeper has been outstanding for the relative minnows in Portuguese football, helping them stay in the Primeira Liga for the past three seasons now. And, while now 26 years of age, he's further showing how it is never too late to make your international debut.
Montpellier centreback Pedro Mendes is another player set to make his Portugal debut, and is even one year older than Claudio Ramos. Perhaps another unfamiliar name to football fans across the continent, his inclusion is something of a surprise, but with Portugal severely lacking quality central defenders between the ages of 23 and 32, he is likely the best of them all, and merits his inclusion.
Midfield duo Sergio Oliveira and Gedson Fernandes - who play for Porto and Benfica respectively - are also set to make their debuts. Different players who have had very different careers, Porto's Oliveira, now 26, has struggled for game time at Porto, who he has been with since he was just 10 years old, playing just 17 league games for Porto in that time. Compare that to Ruben Neves, who has over 50 games for Porto to his name despite having left the club two seasons ago and is also five years younger than his compatriot, and you can see that Oliveira is far from first choice for Porto. However, having filled in for the injured Danilo Pereira with good success this season, he deserves his call-up.
Gedson, meanwhile, is just 19-years old and, rather than bursting onto the scene later in his career like Oliveira, is already having a huge impact at Benfica. Making his club debut this year, Gedson has played in every single one of Benfica's competitive matches - in both the league and the Champions League - and his technique and dribbling ability has made him an instant fan-favourite. While it may be a bit early in his career to make him a regular with the senior national team, this couple of friendlies offered the perfect opportunity to experiment, and Gedson is one player that fully deserved this chance.
Portugal Expected XI (4-3-3): Rui Patricio; Joao Cancelo, Ruben Dias, Pepe, Mario Rui; William Carvalho, Ruben Neves, Bernardo Silva; Gelson Martins, Bruma, Andre Silva.