Few countries across Europe boast as impressive a production line as Portugal who will be looking to add to their 2016 Euro’s win by lifting the inaugural UEFA Nations League title with a squad brimming with young talent.
As the man to deliver Portugal’s first and so far only major title, Fernando Santos will always be revered in his homeland yet one criticism that the experienced operator has faced in recent years has been over a perceived failure to refresh and re-energise his squad.
Throughout his five years in charge, Santos has leaned heavily on experienced pros such as Pepe, Joao Moutinho and of course, Cristiano Ronaldo and while his squad for the tournament on home soil contains those familiar names, there are a few newcomers to watch out for too.
Considering their status as reigning European champions, Portugal somewhat flattered to deceive during last summer’s World Cup in Russia, winning just one of their four matches and suffering a premature exit to Uruguay in the last-16.
Fast forward 12-months and Portugal’s squad has undergone a facelift. Stalwarts of the side over the past decade Bruno Alves, Nani and Ricardo Quaresma are no longer in favour with Santos replacing them with fresh blood. In total, there have been ten changes to last summer’s World Cup squad. Quite the turnaround.
Fernando Santos has freshened up the Portugal squad since a disappointing World Cup campaign (Picture: Getty)Having gone from having the 12th oldest squad at the World Cup with an average age of 28.4, the average age of Santos’ latest selection has been cut down to 27.2 with only six thirty-somethings included.
While Rui Patricio, Pepe, Moutinho and Ronaldo continue to form the spine of Santos’ system, their support network features more younger players than previously. The Jose Fonte and Pepe partnership in defence has been a staple of the Santos era, yet 22-year-old Ruben Dias has dislodged Fonte from the side over the past year.
The Benfica defender was called into Portugal’s World Cup squad despite featuring just once at senior level prior to the tournament, and although he didn’t play a single minute in Russia, he has subsequently started all eight of his country’s games since.
An uncompromising defender who flourishes in one-on-one duels and is adept at passing the ball out from the back off either foot, Dias has been tipped to captain Benfica in the near future, providing he doesn’t move elsewhere. Manchester United were linked with him just last week.
Ruben Dias has been ever-present for Portugal since the World Cup (Picture: Getty)Further up the pitch, Ruben Neves has forced himself into the first-team reckoning having started five of Portugal’s last eight matches following his surprise snub for the World Cup. The 22-year-old has emerged as the long-term heir to his club colleague Moutinho as Portugal’s midfield prober, alongside the more combative William Carvalho in midfield.
While Neves is in prime position to become Portugal’s deep-lying playmaker over the next decade, Bruno Fernandes offers a more attacking contribution from midfield, with the 24-year-old scoring 28 goals and registering 14 assists in 48 games for Sporting Lisbon last season.
Jose Mourinho recently admitted his ‘surprise’ at Fernandes’ exploits, while his Portuguese teammate Bernardo Silva described him as a ‘great player’ whose goals and assists tallies for 2018-19 were not ‘normal’ for a player in his position, last month.
Fernandes’ exploits for Sporting have not gone unnoticed as he is set to be one of the most sought-after players in Europe this summer, with Manchester City, Manchester United and Liverpool all believed to be tracking him. Sporting won’t let him leave on the cheap, though, with a reported £62m fee being touted.
Bruno Fernandes was the second-highest goalscorer in the Portuguese Primeira Liga last season (Picture: Getty)Strangely, considering his form last season, Fernandes has found it difficult to force his way into Santos’ side, starting only once since the World Cup in a 3-0 friendly victory over Scotland, although he will surely become harder for his coach to ignore.
In attack, Goncalo Guedes and Digo Jota (both 22) add depth to Portugal’s options having each enjoyed excellent second halves of the season with Valencia and Wolves respectively, but there is no doubt the headline addition to the Portugal squad is 19-year-old Joao Felix of Benfica.
Felix’s inclusion in Portugal’s Nations League squad means he is only the fourth teenager to be selected by his country for an international tournament since the turn of the century, following in the footsteps of Renato Sanches (Euro 2016), Cristiano Ronaldo (Euro 2004) and Hugo Viana (World Cup 2002).
Even Santos, a coach regarded as a pragmatist in his country, has felt compelled to turn to Felix despite already possessing an abundance of talent up front due to the teenager’s breathtaking breakthrough campaign with Benfica.
A return of 20 goals in 43 games for Benfica – including a Europa League quarter-final hat-trick against Frankfurt – highlights Felix’s promise in front of goal and his ability to score from either foot or with his head, sets him out as a well-rounded finisher.
Joao Felix will be looking to follow in Cristiano Ronaldo’s footsteps for Portugal (Picture: Getty)Despite his goal record and playing predominantly as a striker for Benfica, Felix is naturally more of a No.10 type who possesses a silky touch, an excellent appreciation of space around him and an impressive repertoire of flicks and tricks.
Not since Ronaldo’s emergence has there been such excitement surrounding a Portuguese youngster as Felix, which helps explain why Manchester United, Manchester City and others are reportedly willing to trigger the £89m release clause in his Benfica contract.
The Portuguese Primeira Liga’s status as Europe’s sixth best domestic division means that its top teams often find themselves ripe for cherry-picking by wealthier clubs elsewhere, as is evidenced by the strong presence of former Porto, Benfica and Sporting players populating the best squads in Europe.
Although losing their best players on an annual basis weakens Portugal’s ‘big three’ sides’ ability to make an impact in continental competitions, the trade-off is that their squads are regularly replenished with players developed through their own excellent academies.
With a host of precocious talents already present in the senior squad and many more coming through the younger age groups, Portugal appear to be on the cusp of another ‘Golden Generation’.
That second major title may not be too far away…
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