Leaders Portugal welcomed Spain to the Estadio Municipal de Braga for their final UEFA Nations League Group A2 clash on Tuesday night (September 27). Having secured 10 points from their previous five games, Fernando Santos’ men required a solitary point to progress ahead of Spain, who had eight points after five rounds.
Unfortunately for the home crowd, their team failed to live up to the billing, succumbing to a 1-0 defeat against their Iberian rivals. Alvaro Morata scored a late goal for La Roja to fire them into the final four of the UEFA Nations League. Spain will join Croatia, Italy, and the Netherlands in the final phase of the UEFA Nations League 2022-23 campaign next summer.
Neither Portugal nor Spain seemed too eager to get on the front foot in the opening minutes. Luis Enrique’s side quickly got comfortable on the ball, knocking it around with ease in the middle of the park. Portugal, for the first 20 minutes, watched on from the periphery.
In the 21st minute, the hosts created their first real opening of the match. Diogo Jota headed the ball down for Ronaldo inside the box, who offloaded it to William Carvalho. The midfielder had a go, but his shot was blocked. Moments later, the referee nullified the move, claiming Jota had committed a foul in the build-up.
A minute later, Ronaldo went in to press Spain goalkeeper Unai Simon, hoping to force a mistake out of him. The Portuguese skipper felt that he was fouled by Simon and asked for a penalty, but the referee pointed towards the corner flag instead. Ruben Neves stung the keeper’s gloves from the resulting corner.
Eleven minutes later, Jota took it upon himself to beat Simon. He cut in, evaded two defenders, and had a go at goal. The Liverpool man’s shot was firmly struck, but Simon was equal to his effort. Four minutes later, Bruno Fernandes went for goal from range in the 37th minute, narrowly missing the target and finding the side-netting.
In the second half, Ronaldo and Ruben Dias got a few opportunities to put their team in front, but the finishing touch simply evaded them. Spain, who lacked penetration all night, popped up with the winning goal in the 88th minute, with Morata heading home substitute Nico Williams’ cross across the goal.
It was another unconvincing display by the 2016 European Champions, one that could give Santos a few sleepless nights ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. Here are three Portugal players who struggled and two who impressed in their defeat on Tuesday:
Underperformed: Joao Cancelo
Manchester City star Joao Cancelo failed to trouble Spain with his darting runs on Tuesday night. He was often slow to react, lost possession cheaply at times, and struggled to put threatening balls into the area.
Against Enrique’s men, Cancelo lost three of six duels, ceded possession 13 times, and committed a foul. He also misplaced both his crosses and saw only one of his five attempted long balls reach their destination.
Performed: Nuno Mendes
Paris Saint-Germain (PSG) left-back Nuno Mendes produced another sure-footed performance in his country’s colors on Tuesday night. He was quick off his mark, tracked back tirelessly, held his ground, and linked up well with Carvalho and Jota.
Mendes won 14 of 19 ground duels, attempted a whopping seven tackles, and completed four of five dribbles. Mendes also made a clearance, drew three fouls, and delivered two accurate long balls against Spain.
Underperformed: Bernardo Silva
Portugal deployed Bernardo Silva on the right side of their attacking trio. Much like his Manchester City teammate Cancelo, Silva failed to play his best football. He struggled to get involved, was slow to track back, and was often weak in duels.
Against Spain, Silva completed only 17 passes, lost four of seven duels, ceded possession seven times, and committed a 46th-minute foul on Jose Gaya to pick up a yellow card.
Performed: Diogo Jota
Liverpool ace Diogo Jota was arguably Portugal’s best player against La Roja on Tuesday. He created openings for his teammates, blinded the opposition with his dazzling feet, and worked tirelessly all night. His pass to Ronaldo a couple of minutes into the second half deserved a considerably better end product.
Playing at home, Jota made a key pass, won two of three aerial duels, made a clearance, intercepted threatening balls on a couple of occasions, and attempted two tackles.
Underperformed: Cristiano Ronaldo
Portugal’s captain extraordinaire Cristiano Ronaldo drew another blank for his country on Tuesday night. He ran as hard as he possibly could and got himself into dangerous areas, but the finishing touch simply was not there.
The Navigators' best chance of the night fell his way in the 47th minute, with Jota playing him through on goal with a clever touch. Uncharacteristically, the striker scuffed his shot from close range and found Simon’s gloves. In the 72nd minute, Jota once again found Ronaldo in space inside the Spanish box. The five-time Ballon d’Or winner hesitated to get his shot away, allowing Gaya to intercept.
Against La Roja, Ronaldo also misplaced both his attempted crosses, lost possession nine times, and lost three duels.