Published 31/05/2016 at 07:46 GMT | Updated 10/06/2016 at 17:22 GMT
Portugal are something of an enigma. Instinctively, you reach towards naming them among the favourites for a tournament, with two semi-finals and a runner-up spot in the last four European Championships certainly enhancing their claim here. But there is also a sense that they never quite deliver and a poor performance at the World Cup two years ago was perhaps a reflection of their modern-day reliance on Cristiano Ronaldo. Fernando Santos has worked hard to produce a more polyvalent outfit and there is certainly hope in some outstanding youngsters even if this tournament perhaps comes too soon for the most promising of all, Benfica’s 18-year-old midfielder Renato Sanches. Portugal’s best bet is to ensure they pass the group stage – not a given – and then see how the path lies ahead for them.
Portugal's coach Fernando Santos speaks with his players.
Image credit: Reuters
Can they rely on Ronaldo? Sometimes it feels as if Portugal are far too centred upon their superstar forward but it is easy to forget that he is now 31 and his sluggish performance for Real Madrid in the Champions League final – for which he had been a slight doubt with a thigh injury – raised fears that yet another long season is taking its toll. He did, of course, play through Portugal’s World Cup exit with a knee injury two years ago; if he is anything less than fully fit this time around then they will be somewhat hamstrung.
Ronaldo could well start down the middle in a 4-4-2 with Nani supporting him – with Portugal perhaps departing from the 4-3-3 that had previously served them well. It once again points to Portugal’s lack of a real centre-forward but could mean a more varied goal threat and may give chances to Adrian Silva and Joao Mario in the wide positions, with much of the genuine width coming from one or other of the front men pulling out to a flank. There will also be attacking prowess from full-back, with Wolfsburg’s Vieirinha a force down the right and the Lorient left-back Raphael Guerreiro, linked with a move to Liverpool, a candidate to start on the left after some impressive warm-up displays.
THE MANAGER: FERNANDO SANTOS
Portugal's head coach Fernando Santos
Image credit: Reuters
Santos was appointed in September 2014 when Paulo Bento, who had already failed to guide them through the group stage at the 2014 World Cup, was sacked following a dismal defeat to Albania. The results since have spoken for themselves and Santos, who managed Greece for four years and has divided his coaching career between the two countries, has had some success in blending a promising younger generation with older heads who might regard themselves as nearly men at this level.
TOP THREE PLAYERS
Real Madrid's Pepe celebrates with the trophy after winning the UEFA Champions League as Cristiano Ronaldo looks on
Image credit: Reuters
Cristiano Ronaldo: There is little new to say about Ronaldo, who comes straight from another season of remarkable goalscoring feats with Real Madrid and became the European Championship’s all-time leading marksman with 23 goals when he netted the a qualifying hat-trick in Armenia.
Pepe: Love him or hate him – and many tend to the latter due to antics such as the play-acting he displayed during the Champions League final – Pepe remains a top-quality centre-back and his mastery of the dark arts may assist some of the more callow players alongside him.
Nani: Nani has been a hit at Fenerbahce to the extent that a few rumours have linked him with a return to the Premier League. At 29 he is now an experienced head and, with Portugal short of variation beyond Ronaldo, will be required to seize some initiative himself.
SOCIAL MEDIA STAR
Ronaldo’s Twitter account if not exactly the cuddliest – check the bio, and consequently your expectations, before going after any fun-filled interaction – but he and his minions certainly keep it busy and he has amassed a formidable archive of selfies and promotional shots.
JONATHAN WILSON’S KILLER KNOWLEDGE
Does Ronaldo play on the flank cutting in, or does he operate as a central striker? Even if he does start out wide, Portugal are unlikely to have an orthodox centre-forward, with Santos recently preferring the veteran Zenit St Petersburg playmaker Danny as his false nine before he was ruled out of the tournament through injury.
HOW THEY QUALIFIED
Portugal got off to an embarrassing start in Group I, falling to that 1-0 home defeat against Albania. It was vital to hit back and an injury-time winner by Ronaldo in Denmark re-established some momentum and they were rarely troubled thereafter, although they fell behind briefly during their win in Armenia and were twice pegged back against Serbia before taking the three points. Another late winner, this time in Albania, underlined their new-found resolve and while Portugal rarely caught fire they did not drop a point after that early setback, finishing a comfortable seven points ahead of the Albanians and nine clear of third-placed Denmark.