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Uefa Nations League 2019: Portugal primed to evolve for life after Cristiano Ronaldo

A team that now features talent like Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix is perfectly set up for success this week and well into the future, writes Reading manager Jose Gomes

Jose Gomes
Guest column
Wednesday 05 June 2019 08:31 BST
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Portugal National team training before Nations league semi-final

For anyone going to Portugal to watch the Nations League over the next few days, it will be impossible to miss the sight of so many children playing football in the street, or just carrying a ball. It’s something you actually don’t see as much of in many central European countries, and it’s what the Primeira Liga academies have undeniably tapped into, to help hone what is now one of the most exciting international squads in the world.

A team that now features talent like Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes and Joao Felix is the final result of this, but also means the Nations League could be the start of something else.

It obviously isn’t the European Championship or the World Cup, but could offer a lot of indications as to how the country performs in those competitions over the next decade. There’s first of all the integration of all that talent, secondly whether manager Fernando Santos evolves his tactics with them and – most conspicuously – a pointer to what life might be like when Cristiano Ronaldo eventually retires.

For all the talent in the Portuguese team over the last few years – as illustrated by the fact we are defending European champions no one would say we are a team who always attack. Strong defensive organisation has in fact been one of the characteristics of the national side, that is now being complemented by a production line of players of high technical quality like Ruben Neves and – above all – Bernardo Silva.

You now see so much more of that type of player, whereas academies used to favour strong and physical individual. It might be why some of our players previously struggled. No more.

One of the reasons football is an amazing game is that an intelligent player like Bernardo can open an entire game with a quick decision and instant change of direction. This is talent. This is football. The way he understands and reads the game is exceptional.

This is abundant throughout the squad.

When we have the ball, we have the quality to make a pass. If an opponent starts pressing, we have speed in behind. And, if we want to defend near our goal and invite the other team to do that, we can do that and counter very well too.

We have talent, speed and intelligence.

The question of how Fernando Santos now uses these qualities is the key.

Ronaldo remains this team’s focal point (EPA)

Everybody in Portugal is waiting for this, and there is an excitement. Will Santos keep the same idea, or go with something different, to go with these different qualities.

There is most excitement – and transfer attention – on Sporting’s Fernandes and Benfica’s Felix. The former is 24, the latter just 19, but both are being watched by most of Europe’s top teams.

Their clubs mean they are effectively separated by a street in Lisbon, and everyone is trying to guess how they will be used, but they offer different abilities.

The talent of both boys, however, speaks for itself. Felix has been a teenage revelation, but Bruno is an outstanding player, who can hit the ball from anywhere.

It is however perhaps the full-backs – and those like Joao Cancelo, Raphael Guerreiro and Nelson Semedo – who will as ever tell the most about this new era.

Silva has emerged as a star (EPA)

Whether such players primarily have defensive responsibility, or mostly attack – as with new Champions League winners, Liverpool – almost reveals the outlook of a side.

This will illustrate the real Portuguese team, and is the main issue for Santos.

It will become apparent when Bernardo has the ball in an attack position, coming inside. When he does that, have a lot of players with great potential to play inside, and to create promising combinations.

The intrigue will be whether the full-back stays to cover – which makes it easier for the opposition to defend – or races up on the outside, giving the opposition a big decision about whether to follow Bernardo or stay.

This is where havoc can be caused, creating three corridors to score a goal.

This can give the Portuguese team a different dimension.

Portugal face Switzerland on Wednesday night (Reuters) (REUTERS)

This is Santos’ big decision. Whether he does it in the opening game against Switzerland will be even more indicative, since they are so dangerous on the counter themselves.

It will of course say a lot for now, but may be even more important for the future, especially since the side is going to have to find that different dimension for the day Ronaldo retires.

We hope that’s a long way off, especially since it’s not just about what he represents as a footballer, but also the mental strength. He’s a fighter, and a winner, and players around him are infused with that spirit because his very presence demands you follow him.

Young players can learn so much from him.

That maybe the other value of this Nations League, and spending time in a mini-tournament with him.

It’s going to tell a lot about bigger tournaments to come.

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