There was a time when Portugal were considered the Brazil of Europe, for the flair with which they played football more than the commonality of language.
Now they look more like Greece, grinding their way towards the final of Euro 2016 just as Otto Rehhagel’s team did 12 years ago, when they surprised everyone by going all the way to the final in Lisbon and beating the hosts — Portugal.
Portugal may be able to boast the tournament’s biggest star in Cristiano Ronaldo, and also its most exciting young talent in Renato Sanches, but they have hardly set France on fire with the quality of their football.
Thursday night’s quarter-final victory over Poland was achieved the hard way, coming from behind to equalise through Sanches and then playing out a stalemate through to extra-time and penalties, with Rui Patricio’s save from Jakub Blaszczykowski enough to put them through to a fourth semi-final in the past five tournaments.
It is a remarkable record for one of western Europe’s smallest and poorest countries, and it would be perhaps fitting after this most unpredictable of seasons if the Portuguese were to finally win the European Championship, having apparently abandoned the samba style of their South American cousins from Brazil.
The statistics tell a tale of efficiency rather than excitement. Portugal have been level at the end of 90 minutes in their past six games in the finals — all five games in France so far and their final game in 2012, when they took champions Spain to extra-time before going out on penalties.
They drew their three group matches here, with just four goals scored and four conceded, and then beat Croatia with a goal in the dying minutes of extra-time in the last 16.
That game was considered one of the worst of the tournament, as was Portugal’s goalless draw with Austria, and Thursday’s game fizzled out after starting brightly.
Perhaps the comparisons with Greece should not be a surprise. Fernando Santos succeeded Rehhagel as coach of the Greeks before he took over his home nation two years ago.
He had taken Greece to the finals of Euro 2012 and the World Cup in Brazil four years later, and he ensured Portugal qualified for Euro 2016 with a strong record — they are unbeaten in their past 12 competitive games, winning nine, drawing three.
There are comparisons with another, more famous Portuguese manager in the way he plays. Jose Mourinho has always had most success by making his teams hard to beat rather than easy on the eye.
Even with the skills of Ronaldo, Joao Moutinho and now Sanches, Portugal are set up to be hard to beat. Santos is likely to stick with the same formula for the rest of the tournament. Beyond that, there looks to be a changing of the guard, with Sanches starting to outshine Ronaldo.
While the Real Madrid star had a night to forget in Marseille, missing chance after chance including an ‘air shot’ in front of goal, Sanches has emerged as the dynamic new star. We’d already seen his impact as a substitute, at Wembley against England last month, and then in the early matches of Euro 2016.
Significantly, Santos gave him his first start in the game against Poland and the 18-year-old responded with another man-of-the-match performance and a goal after exchanging passes with Nani.
Former Manchester United winger Nani believes Sanches is a special talent, and says his former club will live to regret losing out to Bayern Munich when Benfica decided to sell earlier this summer. “Renato would have been a great signing for United, without doubt,” Nani said.
“He had a choice — and the choice he made was Bayern Munich. I think United will now know what a big player they have missed.” Defender Jose Fonte agreed: “I think they (United) missed out on a very good talent.
Bayern Munich are very lucky. He has no fear, no fear at all. He just doesn’t care. He asks for the ball all the time, he has power, strength, and energy to run all day and great ability.”
And Fonte says the teenager, who only made his international debut three months ago has the perfect attitude. “He is a nice quiet kid, he listens to the old guys and wants to learn, which is good. It’s great to have him around and he will be the future of the national team for sure.”
Where this will leave Ronaldo is anybody’s guess, but the golden boy of Portuguese football is 31 now and looks off the pace most of this tournament.
Could the most functional of all Portuguese teams finally win the European Championship, with Cristiano Ronaldo relegated to a support act?
In this season, of all seasons, stranger things have happened.
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