Portugal booked their spot at the UEFA 2020 European Championships after finishing second behind Ukraine in Group B to earn direct qualification. The campaign began with two home draws and included a 2-1 defeat in Ukraine, but the Seleção got it done when it mattered and added the inaugural UEFA Nations League to the trophy cabinet in June.
The 10 games were split into five double headers, Fernando Santos’ squad selections, formations and line-ups giving us an insight into his thought process and long-term planning. PortuGOAL's Matthew Marshall breaks it down, discusses some of the winners and losers and charts how Santos and the squad progressed in 2019.
Portugal 0-0 Ukraine
Portugal 1-1 Serbia
Santos started João Moutinho, William Carvalho and Rúben Neves in midfield as Portugal completely dominated Ukraine at the Estádio da Luz, but they were unable to find the breakthrough in a 0-0 draw. Rafa Silva, Dyego Sousa and João Mário came off the bench to no avail.
Portugal conceded an early penalty against Serbia and saw Ronaldo go off injured before Danilo Pereira equalised on the stroke of half time. Once again Portugal created enough chances to win the game, but were unable to secure the winning goal with the match ending in a 1-1 draw. Danilo and William Carvalho were paired in midfield with Dyego Sousa getting the start up front.
Party time in Porto
Portugal 3-1 Switzerland
Portugal 1-0 Netherlands
Portugal took a break from Euro 2020 qualifying to contest the inaugural UEFA Nations League Finals on home soil after topping Group 3 that included Italy and Poland. The semi-final saw Ronaldo score a hat-trick at the Estádio Do Dragão, including two late goals to ensure a 3-1 victory against Switzerland after Ricardo Rodriguez had equalised from the penalty spot.
Nélson Semedo replaced João Cancelo at right back, the midfield including William Carvalho, Rúben Neves and Bruno Fernandes while João Félix got the start up front.
The final at the Dragão was a tight match against the Netherlands that saw Portugal emerge victorious 1-0 thanks to Gonçalo Guedes. Guedes had replaced João Félix in the starting line up, José Fonte coming in for the injured Pepe as Danilo Pereira, William Carvalho and Bruno Fernandes made up the midfield.
Serbia 2-4 Portugal
Lithuania 1-5 Portugal
Portugal desperately needed a result in Serbia to get their Euro 2020 qualification campaign back on track, they duly delivered with a 4-2 win after Serbia twice got themselves back in the contest. Santos stuck with the same starting XI that beat Netherlands as William Carvalho, Gonçalo Guedes, Ronaldo and Bernardo Silva bagged the goals. Nélson Semedo picked up an injury and was replaced by João Cancelo who would start the next match in Lithuania.
It was the Ronaldo show again in Vilnius, CR7 scoring four goals and William Carvalho finishing off an easy 5-1 win after the match was tied 1-1 at half time. Rúben Neves started in midfield beside William Carvalho and Bruno Fernandes, Gonçalo Guedes replaced by João Félix in the starting XI.
The matches in Serbia and Lithuania saw some interesting changes to Santos’ squad. Dyego Sousa was deemed surplus to requirements while Daniel Carriço, Ferro and Renato Sanches got call-ups but remained on the bench.
Portugal 3-0 Luxembourg
Ukraine 2-1 Portugal
Luxembourg were brushed aside 3-0 at the Estádio José Alvalade with Bernardo Silva and Ronaldo on target before Gonçalo Guedes came off the bench to score the third. Pepe returned from injury to partner Rúben Dias in central defence with João Moutinho, Danilo Pereira and Bruno Fernandes starting in midfield.
The next match in Ukraine was likely to decide top spot in Group B and it was the hosts that emerged with a 2-1 win. João Moutinho, Danilo Pereira and João Mário started in midfield as Portugal went into half time 2-0 down.
João Félix replaced Gonçalo Guedes at the break, Ronaldo’s 72nd minute penalty giving Portugal hope as Taras Stepanenko was sent off, but it wasn’t to be in another frustrating match for Santos’ side. Portugal ended with 24-5 shots and 10-4 on target but Andriy Pyatov had a strong game in goal and denied Portugal on numerous occasions.
We saw some major changes to the squad with Rúben Semedo, Ricardo Pereira, André Gomes, João Mário, Bruma and André Silva called up. Santos’ decision to start João Mário at the expense of Bruno Fernandes was slightly curious, the only other player called up that saw any action was Bruma after he replaced Mário in the 68th minute in Kiev.
Portugal 6-0 Lithuania
Luxembourg 0-2 Portugal
The pressure was firmly on Portugal and they responded by showing Lithuania no mercy in a 6-0 thrashing at the Estádio do Algarve. Ronaldo scored another hat-trick with Pizzi, Gonçalo Paciência and Bernardo Silva getting in on the act.
The match was notable for the inclusions of Mário Rui, Ricardo Pereira, Pizzi and Gonçalo Paciência in the starting line-up with Bruma and Diogo Jota coming off the bench. Pepe, William Carvalho and Gonçalo Guedes were all injured with Rúben Semedo, Daniel Podence and Éder added to the squad.
Portugal had to win in Luxembourg as a loss or a draw combined with a Serbia victory against Ukraine would have seen the Seleção fail to qualify directly for Euro 2020. Raphaël Guerreiro, Danilo Pereira and André Silva replaced Mário Rui, Rúben Neves and Gonçalo Paciência in the starting line up with goals to Bruno Fernandes and Ronaldo getting the job done in a 2-0 win.
It was a disjointed performance on a wet and chopped up cow paddock in Luxembourg, but securing three points ensured that Portugal have a ticket to Euro 2020 where they will defend their European Championship crown.
Portugal 2019 Winners and Losers
Portugal have repeatedly proved they can get it done without their captain, but there is no doubt they reach higher levels with their CR7 on the pitch. Ronaldo sat out the UEFA Nations League group stage but returned to the squad in 2019 and started all 10 games.
Ronaldo scored 14 goals in that run including three hat-tricks, taking his career hat-trick tally to 55 and nine for the Seleção. Ronaldo scored those 14 goals in his last eight matches, reaching 99 goals in 164 appearances for Portugal, 10 short of the current top all-time international goalscorer – Iran's Ali Daei.
Portugal have been well stocked at right-back in recent years with Cédric Soares overtaken by João Cancelo and Nélson Semedo. Ricardo Pereira was the forgotten man, Leicester City’s player of the 2018-19 season waiting for his chance that finally came in the final two games with Semedo injured and Cancelo lacking playing time at Manchester City.
Despite showcasing his skills against lowly Lithuania and Luxembourg, Pereira did his chances of earning a starting spot no harm with strong performances in each match.
Bruno Fernandes was injured for the opening two matches against Ukraine and Serbia, but the Sporting CP supremo started every match since with the only exception being the 2-1 defeat in Ukraine. Santos appeared to learn from that mistake and Fernandes is now an integral member of the squad. There is plenty of improvement yet but we are starting to see Bruno get closer to replicating his club form on the international stage.
Pizzi was another to get his chance in the final two games, grabbing a goal against Lithuania and showing his intelligence in constant positional switches with Bernardo Silva. Having Benfica’s best player alongside Sporting CP’s best player in midfield can only be positive for Portugal, let’s wait and see what Santos does against tougher opposition.
It was continually a curious conundrum why Santos couldn't get the best from Bernardo Silva. That doesn’t appear to be the case now, Santos giving the Manchester City star freedom and licence to be the primary playmaker and Portugal are reaping the benefits. PortuGOAL’s Nathan Motz went into more detail about Silva, Portugal’s hero from antiquity, as the midfield maestro flourished in 2019 and proved that he is absolutely crucial to the national team and the man who makes the Seleção tick.
Dyego Sousa earned his first Portugal cap off the bench against Ukraine and replaced André Silva in the starting XI against Serbia. I expressed my disappointment that Santos was wasting time with Sousa when Diogo Jota couldn’t get a chance, Sousa failed to get off the bench in the UEFA Nations League Finals and hasn’t been seen since.
João Cancelo lost his starting spot to Nélson Semedo and then found himself behind Ricardo Pereira after getting limited minutes at Manchester City. None can blame Cancelo for moving to the English Premier League to play under Pep Guardiola, but if his situation doesn’t improve he could remain third choice right-back for the foreseeable future.
André Silva’s club career has been on a downward spiral since he left FC Porto, but the signs were positive after moving on loan from AC Milan to Eintracht Frankfurt. Gonçalo Paciência got the start against Lithuania, Santos recalling Silva on the tractor field in Luxembourg where he failed to make it count. Both players will be going head to head at Eintracht which will provide an easy assessment on who is closer to earning a starting spot in Santos' side.
Santos, squad and selections
Fernando Santos has tried a number of different midfield and attacking combinations in the 10 matches since 22 March. Known as a pragmatic and loyal manager, he came under unwarranted criticism from the keyboard warriors after the opening two draws but responded by winning the UEFA Nations League and securing direct qualification for Euro 2020.
Rui Patrício is the undisputed goalkeeper while Rúben Dias started every match in central defence next to Pepe or José Fonte. Raphaël Guerreiro started every game at left-back except the 6-0 win against Lithuania; Nélson Semedo, João Cancelo and Ricardo Pereira the options at right-back.
Midfield has seen Santos alternate between João Moutinho, William Carvalho, Rúben Neves, Danilo Pereira, João Mário, Bruno Fernandes and Pizzi. Santos started Pizzi and Bruno Fernandes in the final two matches, a significant switch after selecting two traditional holding midfielders for much of the campaign.
I wrote after the opening two matches that Santos had to sort out the midfield, a difficult assignment with so much talent at his disposal. Pairing Danilo and William was a new strategy for Santos, but surely the Bruno Fernandes and Pizzi combination hovering around one dedicated holding midfielder can be a valuable strategy moving forward.
Santos has always shown an ability to learn from his mistakes and make the correct adjustments. Playing Bruno Fernandes and Pizzi has many benefits, namely having two players that can alternate with Bernardo Silva as he drops deep and into central positions to influence the match.
Speaking of Silva, he started all 10 games alongside Cristiano Ronaldo with a supporting cast including Rafa Silva, Gonçalo Guedes, João Félix, Bruma, André Silva and Gonçalo Paciência. Rafa was getting plenty of minutes before an injury and the same can be said for Guedes and Félix. Many players have simply been excluded from the squad due to a lack of playing time and/or form at their respective clubs.
Overall it has been successful year for Portuguese football with the emergence of João Félix one of the major talking points. There is plenty of room for improvement, particularly in maintaining an effective press, but that's one of the most difficult tactics to execute effectively in football, particularly on the international stage.
Seleção supporters have plenty of reasons to be optimistic for 2020. Força!