World Cup 2018: Time for Portugal to hit the refresh button
After a 2nd round exit from the World Cup at the hands of the hard-as-nails La Celeste of Uruguay, Portugal will have to do a lot of soul-searching and recalibration.
For far too long since the exit of the so-called "Golden Generation" that had the likes of Luis Figo, Ruis Costa, Joao Pinto among others, A Seleção das Quinas (Selection of the Quinas) has been too reliant on the brilliance of captain Cristiano Ronaldo to rescue them and make them competitive.
The victory at the 2016 European Championships was one that owed more to grit and tenacity as well as the porous nature of the competition at the tournament.
Fernando Santos' team had a forgettable time at the Russian football carnival: Ronaldo's hat-trick rescued the team from certain defeat against Spain, Ronaldo again got the winning goal in a game against Morocco that the Portuguese should have lost and Ricardo Quaresma's trivela goal was the highlight of another disjointed performance against Iran in the last group game.
With an average age of 28.2, Portugal featured one of the oldest teams at the Mundial and it showed in the slow-paced nature of their play.
It is even worse when looking at the team's central defence as the first choice pairing at Russia 2018: Pepe (35) and Jose Fonte (34) have almost certainly played their last World Cup game for the team and it will be a disaster if any of them were to still in the picture in 4 years time. The same goes for Bruno Alves (37) whose presence in the team continues to surprise everyone.
This relative lack of youth especially in the central defensive area is a big problem as it forces the midfielders to sit deep and protect the slow backline from fast attacking opponents, this was why at the World Cup, William Carvalho hardly ever made forward runs while Joao Moutinho only occasionally ventured past the centre circle.
While there is a paucity of upcoming quality in central defensive positions, coach Santos needs to begin to give games to players like Ruben Dias (Benfica), Ricardo Ferreira (Braga), Edgar Ié (Lille OSC) so as to get them prepared for an assault on the elusive World Cup title at Qatar 2022.
Portugal has always had fantastic players at youth level as a large majority of players who have featured for the national side have done great things at U-17 and U-20 level before making the step up.
Santos had made some bold choices in dropping an ever-present like Nani and other underperforming big names like Eder, Andre Gomes before the World Cup. This should continue as some of the young talents who had been overlooked for the tournament should be brought back into the fold.
The likes of Ruben Neves, Digo Jota, Helder Costa made waves in the English Championship with Wolverhampton Wanderers and they will be plying their trades in the Premier League from next season. Alongside the likes of Diogo Dalot who just joined Manchester United and Nottingham Forest's Diogo Goncalves, there is a good pool of young talent playing abroad and at home; (the Big Three of FC Porto and the Lisbon giants: SL Benfica and Sporting Club continue to produce classy players) who can become mainstays for the national team in the next few years.
One problem that the team has been struggling with has been the absence of a credible goalscoring threat since the exit of the vastly overrated Pauleta. Apart from the Euro-winning goal against France in the final, Eder's time as the team's number one striker has been nothing short of disastrous (4 goals in 33 games). The likes of Nelson Oliveria have flattered to deceive and A Seleção would have found qualification for major tournaments (not to talk of winning them) nigh on impossible without the otherworldly talents of Cristiano.
AC Milan's Andre Silva is still very much a work in progress and it is difficult to see where the next quality striker will come from. For this reason, the wingers in the team: Gelson Martins, Bernardo Silva and others will need to step up as at age 33, Cristiano cannot continue to carry the team on his back like he has done for the last 8 years.
It is not all doom and gloom as the team has bounced back well from previous disappointments in the past, with the right tactical tweaks and change in playing personnel, they should be amongst the contenders for the title at Qatar in 2022.