Portugal could be ready to dominate after claiming first-ever Nations League
A lot has changed since Cristiano Ronaldo’s first international with Portugal, all the way back in 2004, when they lost on home soil to Greece in the European Championship.
He is the only player involved that day who is still active as a professional, but this young Portugal team has gone one better than that illustrious Golden Generation.
No silver medals for them, here in Porto, in the first-ever UEFA Nations League final.
They may still have Ronaldo, 34, Jose Fonte, 35, and Pepe, 36, involved in the international scene but Portugal’s depth is astonishing. They turn out players quicker and with more quality than most nations in Europe, as evidenced here by their second tournament win in three years.
The Nations League may rank below the Euros and the World Cup in terms of priorities, but nothing begets winning better than winning. This is a squad now in the groove, with first international honours now coming to a clutch of emerging talents.
Fernando Santos, the coach, excels at tournament football. At his disposal he’s got players comfortable in a number of different systems in a number of styles.
They can keep the ball, they can play on the break, they can defend high, they can sit in. Between them they’ve got the wherewithal to morph into different shapes, as games and in-game situations develop.
That is why, so long as they get their act together during qualification, they will be among the favourites for the multinational Euro 2020.
By the time the next set of qualifiers roll around, one would presume Ronaldo will be available. He missed the March set of fixtures and Portugal struggled without him.
They currently have only two points from two matches in that domain and badly need their top scorer back and firing.
It’s not so much that they rely on him like a one-man team but he adds so much even by his very presence.
It’s a falsehood to say he doesn’t work hard or expects nothing but silver-platter service. He is happy to pitch in, press, defend corners and the rest of it. And just by being there, Ronaldo puts fear in the heart of the opposition.
He stayed wide as a decoy as Goncalo Guedes put Portugal ahead on the hour from the edge of the box.
The Valencia man had swapped passes with Bernardo Silva to get into the position, with the Manchester City playmaker the closest thing Portugal will have to a superstar once Ronaldo decides to depart.
But all around the team, potential world-class talents are coming to fruition. Santos is probably strapped a little for choices at centre back but if they can source a decent young partner for Ruben Dias then they are on to a winner.
The 22-year-old Benfica man is every bit as assured as Matthijs De Ligt at the other end, and defends with his mind as much as his body.
The full backs here, Raphael Guerreiro and Nelson Semedo are at top clubs and are only 25. Joao Cancelo, of Juventus and coveted by Man City, didn’t get off the bench. Leicester City's Ricardo Pereira, regarded by some as the best right back in England last season, didn’t even make the squad.
To go along with established talents William Carvalho and Danilo in midfield you can add Bruno Fernandes, another one on the shopping list of the best European teams. It is easy to see why; he is tactically flexible, intelligent, adept at finding space and influential. Ruben Neves, who started the semi-final, is ready to step in while the likes of Joao Moutinho prepare to step down.
Then there’s champions of the Euros like Renato Sanches, Joao Mario and Andre Gomes, by no means out of the international reckoning although not present here.
And up front they have the coming force, Joao Felix. He had a difficult initiation to international football here, bundled about as he was by Switzerland in the semi-finals, but he will soon mature enough physically to do to better teams what he has been doing throughout 2019 for Benfica.
That is to say nothing of Guedes, now back on track after a difficult spell at Paris St-Germain. Andre Silva has a goals-to-games record of about one in two. Then there’s Rony Lopes and Gelson Fernandes.
Portugal are well stocked for the next decade or more, and there are no signs of the talent factories here in Porto or else at Sporting or Benfica closing down any time soon.
In any case, judging by his current physical condition, Ronaldo probably has about another three or four years left. That will probably be long enough for the all-time international goalscoring and appearance records.
But when he does decide to go, he will be departing a coming force. He may well be the last man standing from the runners-up of 2004, but it will be a long time before this Portugal side are ready to depart the scene.