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The state of the Portugal national team [Part 2] Second chances and the final squad

In this second part focusing on the Portuguese national team, Filipe Ribeiro writes about the first team called up by new boss, Fernando Santos, and how it differs from the previous regime.

Carvalho Tiago

Now that we have settled in the last part exactly how Portugal arrived at the situation in which they find themselves, we take a look at the short term future of the Portuguese senior National Team. On October 3rd, new coach Fernando Santos revealed the list for the first call up of his tenure, which broke every taboo and controversy Paulo Bento had stirred in one way or another, by bringing back some very familiar names along with some new blood.

The List

The 24 players called up by Santos (they would be 23 but Coentrão is in doubt due to injury, hence the call up of two extra left-backs):

Goalkeepers: Anthony Lopes (Lyon), Rui Patricio (Sporting Lisbon/POR), Beto (Sevilla/ESP)

Defenders: Bruno Alves (Fenerbah?e/TUR), Fabio Coentrao (Real Madrid/ESP), Pepe (Real Madrid/ESP), Antunes (Malaga/ESP), Ricardo Carvalho (Monaco), Ivo Pinto (Dinamo Zagreb/CRO), Cedric (Sporting Lisbon/POR), Eliseu (Benfica/POR), Jose Fonte (Southampton/ENG)

Mildfielders: Adrien Silva (Sporting Lisbon/POR), Andre Gomes (Valencia/ESP), Joao Moutinho (Monaco), William Carvalho (Sporting Lisbon/POR), Joao Mario (Sporting/POR), Tiago (Atletico Madrid/ESP)

Strikers: Cristiano Ronaldo (Real Madrid/ESP), Vieirinha (Wolfsburg/GER), Eder (Sporting Braga/POR), Nani (Sporting Lisbon/POR), Ricardo Quaresma (FC Porto/POR), Danny (Zenit/RUS).

Everyone deserves a second chanceTwelve of those names weren’t on Portugal’s September call up, the last from Paulo Bento. But more important than the differences the two lists contain is noting a few notable names amongst those differences. “There are no IDs for me, everyone is eligible”, Santos said in his first press conference as the new head coach for the Portuguese National Team. And he meant it.

Right away, there are three names that jump out of the page: Ricardo Carvalho, Tiago, and Danny. Three players that had disappeared from the squad during Bento’s era due to three very different causes.

The 36 year-old defender is back after an altercation with Bento in August of 2011 which saw him leave the Portugal camp without further explanation, and be suspended from the National Team for a year. Of course, that year transformed into three because Bento never called him up again, calling what Carvalho had done a desertion.

The 33 year-old midfielder, a current La Liga champion with Atlético Madrid, had officially retired from international duty after the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, citing personal reasons and the desire to give younger players a chance. However just before this year’s World Cup, after a stellar season with Atlético where they won the domestic title and were second in the Champions League, he confessed regretting his decision and his hoping to make the squad that would go to Brazil.

Finally, the Zenit Saint Petersburg star returns after a series of unfortunate injuries which regularly saw him miss the chance to be called up on several occasions, of which the most infamous was when he underwent a minor surgery on a sebaceous cyst in his stomach which meant he couldn’t help Portugal in a their two matches on October 7th and 11th of 2011, yet be fit to play only four days later for his Russian club.

Another return that seems to break with past polemics is that of Quaresma. The virtuous Porto winger wasn’t called up by Bento to the 2014 World Cup after playing an integral part in his team’s second half of the season, something that earned Bento the wrath of many Portugal fans, Porto supporters most of all.

There seems to be an aura of last-chance to these four names, as if Fernando Santos is giving them one more go to prove themselves worthy of representing their nation, effectively washing his hands from the problem if they don’t grab this last opportunity.

Another four names worth noticing are those of José Fonte, Cédric Soares, Ivo Pinto and João Mário. While the Southampton center back earns his much deserved first call up at age 30, the other three are young players who look to earn a starting spot after a bright beginning of the 2013/2014 season, particularly Soares and Pinto, who will be looking to secure the right-back position left vacant by absentee João Pereira.

That leads us to another trend in Fernando Santos’ first call-up: Pereira isn’t the only notorious omission; the likes of Eduardo, Ricardo Costa, Miguel Veloso, Hugo Almeida, Hélder Postiga, Raúl Meireles are missing from the list, as are some names from Paulo Bento’s last selection, only one month ago, such as Rúben Vezo, Pedro Tiba or Ricardo Horta. This points to a tendency to break with the status quo of the Bento era and ushers in a new way of doing selections, or so it seems at least.

Patrício or Beto for number 1

In goal, Rui Patrício should keep his spot, particularly after his solid start to the season. Not many fans or pundits would be against Patrício at this point even though last season’s Europa League final penalty hero Beto is surely a close second, with Anthony Lopes, being the youngest of the three, certainly resigned to his third-choice status.

Defensive doubts

Over in defense, trouble starts. Granted, Pepe and Fábio Coentrão are certainties. The Real Madrid duo are among the best in the world in their respective positions and particularly Coentrão has little or no serious competition for his spot, although he’s supposedly injured (hence the calling up of both Eliseu and Antunes), which can mean that the man who now performs Coentrão’s former duties at Benfica is given the nod. But what about a partner for Pepe in the middle? Certainly Carvalho will be given a chance, the 36 year-old is making a mockery of his age by being one of Leonardo Jardim’s best players so far in Monaco’s shaky start of the season. But this would mean Bruno Alves and José Fonte are benched, and a strong case can be made for either of them.

Alves has been Pepe’s partner in the core of Portugal defenses and the pair have known each other well since their days at Porto; whereas the Southampton captain, although less familiar to the more casual Portuguese fan and despite being shunned in recent call ups, has played an integral part in his club’s fantastic run of form in the last few seasons and is actually perhaps the most in-form of the lot, including Pepe.

The right back position is also up for grabs now that Pereira seems to be out of the picture. Ivo Pinto is one of many Portuguese emigrants in Eastern Europe and is now making a name for himself in unbeaten Dinamo Zagreb, but Sporting’s Cédric Soares is in with a greater chance since he fits in instantly with his club teammates that are also in the National Team and are potential starters.

Midfield full of possibilites

Moving on to center of the park where the young coveted midfielder, William Carvalho, is ahead of the competition for anchor spot. Tiago, another of the returnees, should be another name on the team sheet, fact supported by his starter status on Diego Simeone’s side, the control of tempo and range of passing he brings to the side and his overall larger experience then the rest of the midfielders who have been called up. If Fernando Santos decides to not play him instead of Carvalho as the holding midfielder, then he could play in front of the Sporting man, surely alongside João Moutinho, another of those inevitable names in the skeleton of the Portuguese team who, with Coentrão, has been second only to Ronaldo. Nevertheless, the trio could have their work cut out for them, because lurking in the sidelines are Adrien Silva and João Mário, both from Sporting (the club with most representation in the Portuguese camp), with the latter having only recently, but emphatically, earned starter status at his club; and also André Gomes, the 21 year-old who’s making headlines in Spain with his astounding performances at Valencia a major part of the club’s impressive second place in La Liga.

Santos might even be tempted to play a four men midfield, with Carvalho, Tiago and Moutinho forming a diamond midfield with one of the other three names acting as the number 10. This would mean only two players in attack, and the breaking of a long tradition of wingers in the Portuguese National Team, which judging by the fact that Santos called up four (arguably five) of them, doesn’t seem likely. It might make for a decent plan B, though.

Ronaldo, who else?

And speaking of wingers, we finally come to attack. This realm has had only one ruler for the past decade, and if anyone on the planet has got his starting spot guaranteed, it is Cristiano Ronaldo in the Portugal team. The captain is already all-time leading scorer, and is quickly heading for legend Luís Figo’s record of 127 appearances as well. Eusébio is certainly O Rei, but statistically Cristiano Ronaldo will go down as the best footballer in Portuguese history, so it’s safe to assume Santos isn’t going to be bothered with one of the names for the trio upfront. The other two is another matter.

Again, this area sees the return of another long-time missing name, Danny. Primarily a left winger (which would account for the five we mention above), Danny isn’t expecting to snatch his preferred position from Ronaldo, so that could mean Santos employs him in the central part of attack in a sort of false-nine role to serve as a distributer to his two wing teammates, as an extra man building and pressing with the midfield, and of course as a finisher. He can also fall to either flank, particularly the left one whenever Ronaldo incurs in his typical runs towards the middle to finish. On his right hand side, Nani’s recent form back at Sporting should give him the nod ahead of Porto fan-favourite Quaresma, who despite his call up is still struggling to find a spot in his own club’s starting lineup.

That leaves Éder, the SC Braga towering striker who doesn’t seem to really fit in with Ronaldo and Nani’s style of cutting inside and looking for shooting chances for themselves; and Vieirinha, whose solid performances at Wolfsburg continue to inspire confidence in his call up but is perhaps doomed to lurk in the shadow of the more mercurial wingers with whom he shares the locker room.

What does the future hold?

So considering the new coach doesn’t completely turn the tables on tradition, Portugal’s immediate fate (particularly starting on October 14th in Copenhagen) could be in the hands of following names, in a 4-3-3 lineup: Patrício; Cédric, Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho and Coentrão; William Carvalho, Tiago and Moutinho; Nani, Danny and Ronaldo.

Before wrapping up, one last pertinent thing worth referring and made apparent throughout our analysis is the average age of the Portuguese squad.

Although it is lower than it was at this year’s World Cup, where Portugal were the second oldest team, with an average age of 28.2 years, Fernando Santos’ first list has an average age of 27.7, which is still pretty high. But further examination of this fact would lead us down a road big enough for a whole different discussion, which we will hopefully address in the future, concerning the state of youth football in Portugal and the structure of Portuguese clubs and National teams at the various age levels. Apparently, the new manager is keen on keeping to his word and assemble what he considers to be the best group of players regardless of their age, and that will have to be enough to convince even the most skeptic fan out there for the time being.

In the end, whichever way Santos decides to take the Seleção, one thing is certain: Portugal are very much still in with a chance of getting to the EURO finals, even after the calamity against Albania that brought about the end of the Paulo Bento reign. Sure, things could be easier if they had won the match, or if their new manager wasn’t serving an 8-game suspension from international matches. But that wouldn’t give us much to talk about, would it?


Written by Filipe Ribeiro


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