Portugal vs Iceland: Fernando Santos sparks revival after poor show on international stage

After failure on the international stage since the millennium, could the European Championship in France be the start of a new era for Cristiano Ronaldo and Co?

Portugal vs Iceland: Fernando Santos sparks revival after poor show on international stage
The brains, Fernando Santos | Photo: AFP

Portugal get their European Championship campaign underway on Tuesday when they face minnows Iceland, and the Selecao will be hoping their time in France will be a success after previous heartaches.

Let’s not forget that Luiz Felipe Scolari did guide Portugal to the Euro 2004 final – hosted in their home country – losing out to a single Angelos Charisteas goal for Greece, despite registering 17 shots.

Since then, the Portuguese have not had much to celebrate. A fourth place finish at the 2006 World Cup in Germany was followed by a quarter-final elimination to eventual runners-up, Germany at Euro 2008. Portugal then bowed out of the 2010 World Cup in South Africa in the Round of 16, losing to Spain, who of course became the kings of the world that year.

Cesc Fabregas then scored the winning penalty during the semi-final stage during the 2012 European Championship, after Bruno Alves missed the all-important penalty. The 2014 World Cup in Brasil was then arguably Portugal’s worst performance on the international stage since the new millennium. Paulo Bento failed to advance past the group stage with his Portugal side, opening the competition with a 4-0 defeat to Germany.

So, what has changed since 2014?

In came Fernando Santos, and with the 61-year-old, also a new style of football. In previous competitions, Portugal usually lined up with a 4-3-3, but now they switch between a 4-4-2 and 4-4-2 diamond.

Many may not think it, but the 4-4-2 formation that Santos uses has a great deal of flexibility. Cristiano Ronaldo still leads the line for the Selecao, but also Luis Nani often partners the Real Madrid star. It’s fair to say, since Pauleta, that Portugal have not had a lot going on in front of goal, other than Ronaldo.

Can Ronaldo lead Portugal to glory? | Photo: AFP
Can Ronaldo lead Portugal to glory? | Photo: AFP

Hugo Almeida, Helder Postiga and Nelson Oliveira have all tried and failed leading the line.

The only out-and-out striker that Santos has in his squad is Lille’s forward, Eder, who has a disappointing three goals in 26 appearances.

Behind the forwards, Santos has a plethora of talent to choose from.

The revelation that is Renato Sanches has been called up to the squad, after impressing for Benfica, thus earning a move to Bayern Munich, whilst the ever-present Joao Moutinho will be a key ingredient to any Portugal success.

The wildcard, Renato Sanches | Photo: BeIn
The wildcard, Renato Sanches | Photo: BeIn

The cause for concern comes at centre-back. All of Santos’ four central defenders are over 30, with Ricardo Carvalho still arguably one of their best ever at international level, now 38. Pepe has just won the Champions League with Real Madrid, whilst Alves has recently sealed a move to Cagliari.

Portugal do have talented defenders finally coming through their ranks at youth level. Sporting CP’s Ruben Semedo has been tipped for a big future, whilst teammate Tobias Figueiredo is said to be the next to step up.

The Portuguese Iniesta

Paulo Futre has earmarked Joao Mario as a potential replacement to Andres Iniesta at Barcelona, whilst the Portuguese international is also wanted by Manchester United’s Jose Mourinho.

Mario, 23, is currently deployed as a right-midfielder in the current Portugal setup, but he can also play through the middle.

With a deft first touch, Mario isn’t frightened to run on the ball, causing teams havoc with his ability to unlock defences due to his passing skills.

This is the time for the Portuguese international to shine, on the international stage, and there’s no doubt that he will.

Just how far can they go?

Santos has a real opportunity to progress past the group stage. Austria prove the only real threat, but you never know what you’re going to get at a major competition.

Portugal open their Euro 2016 campaign against Iceland, who are no pushovers. Get three points on Tuesday night, and Portugal could be in the running for a place in the knockout stage.