Euro 2016: Why Portugal absolutely deserve to be here
Looking ahead to the first semifinal of Euro 2016 between Wales and Portugal, much of the talk is unsurprisingly about the two men from Real Madrid who are the stars for their respective teams, Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo. Even before the game has started, if there is one area where Bale and his Welsh side have already had the beating of Portugal is in the attention and praise lavished upon them.
In fact, Portugal have been quite the forgotten child. Wales’ remarkable rags to riches story, from being below 100 in the world rankings just about four years ago to now being in the final four of the continent’s premier showcase has had the press mills constantly churning out pieces on them. Germany are Germany, perennial contenders and the reigning world champions, so they are due to get all the coverage. France are the hosts and just happen to have a very talented team to boot boosting hopes of yet another triumph on home soil.
Left alone by themselves in a corner, Portugal have quietly gone about the draw and made it here, hardly inconvenienced by the lack of spotlight. That's now four semis in the last six European championships for the Iberian side.
A lack of spotlight isn't entirely something to ponder on, but there has also been the feeling in many quarters that they've been lucky to get as far as they have. The fact that they haven't won a game in normal time (extra time against Croatia and penalties against Poland) has been used to downplay their aspirations and quality. Yet, that would be a very myopic view to take indeed.
Portugal have been amongst the most effective teams in the tournament so far after a slow start. True, they didn't win a single group game (drawing all three), but not in the same manner. They played expansive, attacking football the first two games, only to come away with draws thanks to their own profligacy in front of goal. In the final group game, one of the most entertaining games of Euro 2016 to date, they played out a six-goal thriller, thrice coming back from being down to force a draw. In the round-of-16-clash against Croatia, their opponents scared of Portugal's threat on the counter, opted to play a cagey game, while the Poland game saw a very entertaining and intense first half before fatigue and the two teams taking their foot off the gas, meant the game went to penalties.
Well stocked in all positions
Pragmatism has been something this Portuguese team under Fernando Santos has displayed. They have gone out and tried to win the game, but have opted to err on the side of caution in tight situations. A well-stocked team has helped them in that regard, allowing Santos, who hasn't been shy to effect changes, much flexibility.In the middle of the park, William Carvalho has been the lone constant as the defensive midfielder with Santos choosing to juggle around with the rest.
Renato Sanches, Joao Moutinho, Joao Mario, Andre Gomes and Adrien Silva have all seen game time at various stages of the tournament, including in the same match. Silva has got the starting nod in the last two rounds. The fullbacks too have seen much chopping and changing with Raphael Guerrero and Eliseu manning the left and Cedric and Vierinha taking care of the right.
Veteran Ricardo Carvalho was called back for the qualifiers to provide some solidity to the backline in central defence and he's proven instrumental. Southampton's Jose Fonte has taken over though since the knockouts, possibly due to Carvalho’s lack of pace. Alongside Pepe, who has had strong outings throughout, the last two games in particular against the Croats and Poles, they have contributed towards a tight defensive unit.
The frontline is a terrifying well off of him, their movement has caused defences problems. Santos also has the ultimate X factor in Ricardo Quaresma to bring off the bench, who along with Sanches, have had an impact every time they've come on. Portugal boast a lethal attack that can change a game in a jiffy especially when the quartet of Ronaldo, Nani, Quaresma and Sanches leads the line. They will be the best counter attacking team that Wales have come up against so far in this tournament.
Horses for courses
Portugal are yet to lose a competitive fixture under Santos’ management. The wily coach has been one of the best managers at Euro 2016. He's changed his approach depending on the opponent, both in terms of personnel and strategy.
As mentioned earlier, Carvalho was solid in defence, but Santos sensed there was the possibility of him getting caught out by pace, and so has gone with Fonte since the round of 16. All the more important, when your other central defender in Pepe likes to step forward at times for interceptions.
He hasn't been afraid to make early substitutions if it hasn't been working. In the final group game against Hungary, he took off Moutinho at halftime to introduce Sanches. His introduction of Sanches against Croatia came at the right time too and helped his side wrestle the game back.
Santos has so far shown himself to be an astute reader of the game, a man who's had a button on the pulse of the contest. Contrast that to the likes of Spain's Vicente del Bosque and England's Roy Hodgson who've come a cropper in that regard.
A talisman and the ultimate X factors
Cristiano Ronaldo hasn't had the best of tournaments. He has scored only twice in five games (both in the game against Hungary), missed a penalty against Austria and scored a grand total of zero goals from about 20 shots on goal against Iceland in the opener.
Yet, he continues to do the little things that matter. Like being the one, along with Quaresma, to kickstart the counter that led to their goal against Croatia. Ronaldo’s and Quaresma’s pressure on the Croat player turned the ball over and led to the break being initiated. Against Poland, he stepped up to take the first penalty, after having been criticised in the last Euros for having saved himself for the fifth kick in the semi against Spain.
He's also led this side well because well, he's still Ronaldo. His confidence filled persuasion of Moutinho to be amongst the penalty takers against Poland (Moutinho had missed against Spain in that same contest last time) in the last round was leadership at its finest. And him being Ronaldo, he still represents a sizable threat every time he steps out onto the pitch, keeping defenders on their toes.
He's also got help from two guys who've been able to impact games like no one else at these championships. While Ronaldo has been the shining star for Portugal in the last decade or so, Sanches looks to be the guy carrying the side for the future. Incredibly talented and with no fear, his strong running with the ball puts defences on the back foot. Not too long ago, Quaresma was a similar talent.
The mercurial winger though has not fulfilled the early promise and after early spells at Barcelona, Porto and Inter Milan, saw his career taper. Yet now, at the age of 32, he has returned from the wilderness almost to assume a key role in this side thanks to Santos. His ability to whip a cross in remains a thing of beauty.
Let’s make no mistake, by no stretch of the imagination are this Portuguese side lucky or undeserving of a place in the final four. This is simply a team that knows how to get the job done and has the players required in their ranks to accomplish that very feat. Plucky Wales lie next in their path; if they do get past them, they will be in the final again and have a chance to brush aside the disappointment of the final loss at home in 2004.