The last time I sat down to write about the Portuguese national team, I was flat-out annoyed at the performance that I saw against Albania. Maybe it was a build-up from the dismal display in Brazil during the World Cup, where they crashed out before making the knockout rounds, who knows? But the point I made that day was valid: Portugal needed change, in virtually every aspect of their game. And, speaking as someone who has followed this team through times more thick than thin, I can happily say, that they finally delivered.
Fernando Santos’s first competitive game in charge of the Portuguese went exactly according to plan. After a disappointing yet encouraging friendly defeat against France, Portugal bounced back in style against Denmark on Tuesday night, recording their first win in European qualification for the coming 2016 tournament. The score was 1-0, and it should have been more, but for some excellent defending and some top notch saves from Leicester City keeper Kasper Schmeichel. The Dane kept shots from match-winner Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani at bay, truly stepping up to the occasion to face a team that they know all too well.
Portugal have faced Denmark far too many times in the past four years, and more often than not, the games usually go in Denmark’s favour. Not on Tuesday, Santos wouldn’t have any of it. The Portuguese thoroughly out-classed the Danes, proving to the Portugal fans that they can still live up to their, it must be said, bewildering spots in the FIFA rankings.
The aforementioned changes that the Portuguese team needed lied not so much in their personnel – Portugal have boasted some of the greatest midfield talents in the world in recent years – but rather in their style of play, which tended to emphasize a much more individual based brilliance as opposed to a unified team display that could win a tournament. This changed as soon as Fernando Santos stepped down from his job as head coach of Greece and came home to Portugal. Santos, however, decided to revamp his squad, and bring in players that, in some cases, have long since retired from international football. He’s brought in the kind of players who know exactly what it means to be part of a brilliant team, and yet not be the standout star of the show.
When in doubt, go back to the basics, to the players who helped Portugal when they were at their best. Who do I mean by this? Ricardo Carvalho, and Tiago Mendes. Carvalho is 36 years old and has truly made the clock roll back in his two recent performances since being recalled to the national squad. He reminded me of the Carvalho that formed the brick wall of a defence for Chelsea alongside John Terry; this is a man who hasn’t lost his defensive prowess, and he made it show with a performance that saw goalkeeper Rui Patrício having only one save to make. Whether or Ricky will have it in him, at 38, to represent Portugal at the European Championships in two years’ time might be asking a bit much of any defender, (save for Paolo Maldini perhaps) but the fact that Santos has brought back and reinvigorated one of Portugal’s best ever defenders is great news for the qualification process.
Santos has done quite a lot in that regard, bringing back Tiago, another veteran of club and country. Playing his club football with Atlético Madrid now since 2010, Tiago is a player who has been all around Europe, representing some of the most prestigious clubs in the process, and yet never taking the major plaudits that he certainly deserves. Being an unsung hero in this respect has worked to his advantage. He has controlled the midfield at the Vicente Calderón, and shows, like Carvalho, no signs of stopping. Partnered alongside the less experienced but extremely promising young defensive midfielder, William Carvalho, Santos could have a brilliant partnership on his hands – an important one to have for their tough group.
Bringing back these two players has obviously worked in Portugal’s favour, and looks like it will continue throughout the qualifiers, but there is one more that I’d like to note that has made a resurgence in his international career: Ricardo Quaresma. He scored the penalty against France that made their loss a little more bearable, (albeit a friendly loss) and he came on as a substitute late in the game and provided the cross to which Ronaldo cleanly met for the winning goal against Denmark. Quaresma was once touted as one of the most exciting wingers in world football, but ever since leaving Porto in 2008 for Internazionale, he endured for the next six years a lull in form for both club and country.
His return to Porto was certainly music to Portugal fans’ ears, as maybe we would be able to see the Quaresma that lit up the stage at the Dragão so many years ago, and maybe help guide the Portuguese to France in 2016. At 31, he still has plenty left in the tank in my opinion, and definitely has it all to offer for Portugal during the qualifying campaign. Whether he’ll be confined to a super-sub role or work his way back to the starting line-up is up in the air at this point, but having a player of his calibre in the squad, with his rediscovered form, is nothing but a major asset to Santos and company.
Fernando Santos has changed the way that Portugal plays simply by recalling the players that have had the best success with the team in the past. He’s called up the kinds of players that have had club triumphs while not stealing the show. This, to me, is perhaps the most important aspect of calling the players that he has. Whether in defence with Carvalho, solid as always, to fix what has been a very leaky Portugal backline in recent years, or in the middle of the pitch with Tiago, a player who has shone during his time in Spain, guiding Atlético Madrid to a La Liga title and a Champions League final in the process.
And of course by bringing in Quaresma, someone who knows how to work the wings and get in a crucial cross, as we saw against the Danes; these are the kinds of players that are going to get Portugal into the European Championships. It’s time to take the weight of the country off of Ronaldo’s shoulders, and put it on the team itself. That there is the key to getting Portugal back on track, and out of this inconsistent slump that they have been in for too long. Santos has got it absolutely right in his approach, and I predict a rebirth for Portuguese international football because of it.