Hindustan Times ST (Jaipur)

All-star cast makes champs Portugal contenders again

The likes of Bruno Fernandes, Andre Silva, Diogo Jota, Joao Felix and Bernardo Silva in their ranks, Portugal eye another shot at the crown June 15 June 16 June 19 June 24

- Bhargab Sarmah

It’s unusual for a conversati­on on Portugal ahead of a major tournament to not revolve around Cristiano Ronaldo. But this isn’t your usual Portugal squad. The title holders have been placed in the toughest group of the European Championsh­ip but Portugal start among the pre-tournament favourites with what many see as their best-ever squad.

The Fernando Santos-coached side surprised the world with their European triumph in 2016, particular­ly in the way they upstaged hosts France in the final after Ronaldo was stretchere­d off early in the first half. Since then, Portugal have also lifted the 2019 UEFA Nations League.

“I have great confidence in my players and I have the conviction that Portugal is a title candidate,” Santos told reporters recently. Packed with quality in every part of the field, the idea of a successful title defence doesn’t sound far-fetched. Only Spain have won successive editions, in 2008 and 2012, in the competitio­n which began in 1960.

Among the newest breed of stars in the Portugal team is Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes, who has lit up the Premier League since joining in early 2020. “He’s been fantastic, the lad,” United’s legendary former manager Alex Ferguson said of Fernandes while speaking to BBC last month.

“He’s scored some important goals and even when he’s taking his penalty kicks, he’s very confident about them. And I can’t even think if a goalkeeper’s got anywhere near his penalty kicks. So he’s calm, his shots from outside the box are always a threat and he’s got that thing United have really needed in the past few years — he’s got the ability to make a pass in the final third. It opens up defences and I think that’s important,” said Ferguson.

At a club that isn’t short of stars, Fernandes hasn’t taken long to cement his status as the main man at Old Trafford. United’s new midfield maestro racked up 28 goals and 18 assists across all competitio­ns in the 2020/21 season for his club. He will be hungry to replicate that form with his national team this summer.

But Fernandes is hardly the only star name in the team after Ronaldo.

Up front, the 25-year-old Andre Silva is finally starting to live up to his reputation, scoring 28 goals for Eintracht Frankfurt in 32 Bundesliga games last season. Diogo Jota has quickly establishe­d himself as a key part of the Liverpool attack since his transfer from Wolves last year. The young Joao Felix helped Atletico Madrid win the La Liga and can be a dangerous weapon in Portugal’s arsenal. Then there’s of course Ronaldo, who, at 103 internatio­nal goals, is chasing Iranian Ali Daei’s alltime record of 109.

The midfield that features Fernandes also has Manchester City’s Bernardo Silva, who has grown into a highly influentia­l figure in Pep Guardiola’s side. Bernardo Silva won his third Premier League title with City and also played in his maiden Champions League final last month. The presence of Lille’s league-winning midfielder Renato Sanches, PSG’S Danilo Pereira, veteran Joao Moutinho and his Wolves teammate Ruben Neves, among others, add tremendous depth and versatilit­y to the midfield.

The defence isn’t lacking in quality either. Ruben Dias was recently voted the FWA Footballer of the Year after he helped City to the Premier League title. His club teammate Joao Cancelo has won league titles in Italy and England and is playing in his first major tournament.

Cancelo’s fellow full-back Raphael Guerreiro’s career has witnessed a revival of sorts at Borussia Dortmund and he helped his side recently win the German Cup. Veteran defender Jose Fonte, a key part of Lille’s French League success, is expected to be Dias’ partner in central defence.

Then there’s the evergreen Pepe who, at 38, is more than just a capable back-up, and other well-known defenders such as Nelson Semedo. The presence of the ever-reliable Rui Patricio in goal and Anthony Lopes as back-up rounds up a squad filled with tremendous firepower.

The last time Portugal entered a major tournament as one of the favourites was perhaps in 2004, when a squad featuring the likes of Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Ricardo Carvalho, Maniche, Jorge Andrade, a young Ronaldo, among others, reached the final only to be shocked by Greece on home turf in Lisbon.

This time, the Portuguese will start against minnows Hungary, which will give them the chance to try and notch up three points before the key clashes against Germany and France.

While winning the group will undoubtedl­y be Portugal’s aim, as it will open up an easier knockout stage path, they will know from past experience hat even finishing third could be enough.

At Euro 2016, the first edition to feature 24 teams, Portugal failed to win any of their group stage games and made it to the next round with three points and a goal difference of 0. A similar position could also be enough this time, which is why a big win over Hungary in the opener would be key to boost their goal difference.

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 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? Cristiano Ronaldo lifts the trophy after Portugal beat France in the Euro 2016 final at the Stade de France in Paris.
GETTY IMAGES Cristiano Ronaldo lifts the trophy after Portugal beat France in the Euro 2016 final at the Stade de France in Paris.
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