Two summers ago, at the European Championships in France, coasting through the tournament without many fireworks suited Portugal down to the ground.
Then again, it wasn’t until the latter stages of the tournament that they had anything to shout about. Fernando Santos’ side just about negotiated their way out of Group F, with three draws squeezing them into the last 16.
They proceeded to beat Croatia 1-0 after extra time, edge past Poland on penalties and see off Wales in the semi-final. Even in the final, the glare of the spotlight was fixated on the hosts and the blistering form of Antoine Griezmann.
But Portugal hadn’t read the script, Eder scoring to break French hearts and clinch a first tournament title for Portugal.
The inevitable caveat to such a triumph, however, is that Portugal arrive in Russia to heightened expectations. Here, we delve deeper into the reigning European champions to see how they will fare at this year’s World Cup.
Road to the World Cup
Like many of the more high-profile European nations, Portugal’s path to this summer’s tournament was smooth and relatively stress-free. It started with a hiccup, losing 2-0 away to Switzerland but regrouped with a 6-0 demolition of Romania in the second game.
From there, Portugal passed every challenge, finishing top of their qualifying group with 27 points from a possible 30. Switzerland finished level on 27 but Portugal’s vastly superior goal difference guaranteed their ticket to Russia.
Of course, one can draw only limited conclusions from Portugal topping a group that contained Andorra, Latvia and Faroe Islands.
At last summer’s Confederations Cup, Santos’ team performed well, topping their group after beating Russia and New Zealand and drawing Mexico.
However, they failed to reach the final after losing 3-0 on penalties to Chile following a scoreless 120 minutes (Claudio Bravo saved from Nani, Ricardo Quaresma and João Moutinho).
Since then, they have been somewhat ordinary in friendlies, too. A 1-1 draw against the United States was followed by a 2-1 win over Egypt, but it’s been distinctly underwhelming since then, losing 3-0 to the Netherlands before two draws with Tunisia and Belgium, squandering a two-goal lead in the former.
Cristiano Ronaldo was absent from the two most recent games as the forward has been given some much-needed time off before the World Cup after helping Real Madrid clinch their third successive Champions League.
Undoubtedly a more clinical unit with the 33-year-old in attack, Portugal will still need to improve on recent showings when they face Spain on June 15.
As anyone who sat through their Euro 2016 campaign can attest to, Santos’ Portugal are not synonymous with free-flowing, attacking football.
When he succeeded Paulo Bento in 2014, Santos – who coached Greece at the last two World Cups – sought to make the switch from his predecessor’s 4-3-3 system to a 4-4-2. The main aim was emphasising the goalscoring prowess of Ronaldo, making the country’s most-capped player and record scorer the main reference point in attack.
Ronaldo’s central role up top excused him from any defensive duties that may have come from playing on the left of a 4-3-3. During the Euros, Ronaldo enjoyed attacking freedom while the likes of João Mário and Renato Sanches were asked to track back.
In addition, Portugal haven’t exactly been blessed with an abundance of world-class strikers in recent years, so shifting Ronaldo into the centre seemed a wise move.
In Russia, Santos is not expected to stray far from his trusted system, again deploying a 4-4-2 which will see AC Milan forward André Silva partner Ronaldo up front.
Portugal have pace and creativity in midfield, too, with Moutinho, Mário and Bernardo Silva all expected to start, but their aging defence will certainly be tested more than they were during the qualifiers.
Pepe will start but who he’ll line up alongside remains unclear. Bruno Alves has been included in Santos’ squad but the defender will be 37 in November and looked off the pace at times during his first season at Rangers, leaving 21-year-old Rúben Dias and José Fonte as the alternatives.
Dias, while clearly talented, is somewhat untested. His solitary cap came in the draw with Tunisia so it’s not entirely clear whether Santos will trust a player lacking tournament experience.
Fonte, on the other hand, impressed at Euro 2016 but, like Pepe, is in decline, and now plays his football in China. At 34, the former Southampton and West Ham United defender isn’t quite the force he once was, leaving Santos with a precarious situation at the back.
Despite their advancing years, Portugal’s centre-halves proved a tough nut to crack in qualifying. After losing to Switzerland, they only conceded twice in nine games.
Further to their defensive issues, Portugal won possession in the defensive third on average 16.9 times per game during qualifying, ranking them 27th out of the 32 qualified nations.
However, as resilient and well-drilled as ever, they only conceded 0.1 big chances per game, the best of the qualified 32 and a reminder of how stubborn Santos’ men are.
Their captain, record scorer and the man to have represented Portugal more than any other, Ronaldo remains his country’s key player.
Russia could prove to be his last World Cup appearance, considering he will be 37 by the time Qatar rolls around, and the five-time Ballon d’Or winner will surely focus his astonishing, singular drive to succeed on clinching the only trophy that has eluded him during his career.
Santos’ hope is that Ronaldo will line up in Russia refreshed after some time off following his Champions League excursions with Madrid. The forward scored 15 times during the qualification process – only Poland’s Robert Lewandowski managed more – and the hope is that he can continue to flourish while spearheading his country’s attack.
Portugal’s new breed of attacking talents will be expected to contribute too. Silva struggled for much of his first season at Milan but boasts a stellar record of 12 goals in 22 games for his country, while 21-year-old Valencia winger Gonçalo Guedes and Arsenal transfer target Gelson Martins, Sporting Lisbon’s raw but exciting 23-year-old, can provide added pace and flair.
Renato Sanches, however, has not made it, the Euro 2016 young player of the tournament being left at home following a torrid loan spell at Swansea City.
Santos boasts a wealth of experience, with his coaching career starting in 1988 at Estoril. He is a highly intelligent man, having completed a degree in electrical and telecommunications engineering during his playing days, and has been quite rightly called a pragmatist.
For Santos, when it comes to football, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. “I don’t know what beautiful is,” he once said. “I know pretty things exist – but what is pretty for me and what is pretty for someone else is different.”
He may not teach the most attractive brand of football and, while there have been criticisms of his style, Santos’ record at tournaments shows the courage in his convictions is not misplaced (before winning the Euros, he almost guided an average Greece team into the World Cup quarter-finals in 2014, losing on penalties to Costa Rica in the last 16).
Santos’ contract runs until 2020 but, should his Portugal’s gameplan backfire in Russia, it is entirely feasible that he will be shown the door.
Expected to beat Morocco and Iran, Ronaldo and co should progress out of Group B alongside Spain. However, finishing second behind La Roja would pit them against the winners of Group A, which we’re expecting to be Uruguay.
Given their successful winning formula, it’s perhaps imprudent to write them off but, given the strength of Brazil, France, Spain and Germany, it’s difficult to see Portugal progressing past the quarter-finals.
Of course, Ronaldo has exceeded all expectations throughout his career, often making the improbable seem rather routine. Relying on his ingenuity, however, seems a fool’s game.