On Thursday, Portugal will face off against Turkey in a 2022 FIFA World Cup play-off semi-final. Should A Seleção progress, they will face the winner of Italy versus North Macedonia in the play-off final just three days later.
After the dizzying highs of winning their first international tournament at Euro 2016 as well as adding a second to the trophy cabinet in the form of the inaugural UEFA Nations League in 2019, Portugal have somehow found themselves, yet again, involved in a play-off and face the very real prospect of not making it to the World Cup in Qatar.
You have to go back to 1998 for the last time Portugal failed to qualify for a World Cup. It was a time when the national team was establishing itself on the international stage, dubbed by the Portuguese media as Geração de Ouro or The Golden Generation. Portugal’s failure to make the 1998 edition meant that this crop of incredible talent – players such as Luís Figo, Rui Costa, Jorge Costa, Vítor Baía and João Vieira Pinto – would have to watch the tournament as mere spectators.
After winning both the 1989 and 1991 editions of the FIFA Under-20 World Cup, the nation finally had a generation of players that they could believe in – one they expected to put Portuguese football firmly on the map. They reached Euro 96 with ease, topping their qualification group and despite this being just their second participation in the European Championship finals, they reached the quarter-finals.
Despite a solid foundation to build upon, Portugal crashed out of qualifying for the 1998 World Cup, losing out to Germany and Ukraine to finish third in their group – never recovering from a poor start thanks to a draw away in Armenia before losing to Ukraine in Kyiv. Undoubtedly their most talented group of players since 1966 had missed out on appearing at the most prestigious football tournament.
Fast forward to 2022 and Portugal could very feasibly suffer the same fate as that late-90s side. This time around however, it would be an even worse failure should they fail to make it, given that this side is often regarded by many as man-for-man, the greatest Portugal side in history.
With world class talent all over the pitch, if this crop does in fact miss out, they will certainly go down as one of the most talented squads ever to not make it to a World Cup.
Ahead of their playoff tie, how have they found themselves in this predicament?
Road to Qatar
On paper, Portugal’s route to the 2022 World Cup wasn’t the hardest. Serbia, Republic of Ireland, Luxembourg and Azerbaijan were the four opposing sides that stood in their way in Group A – Serbia had only qualified for one of the last five major international tournaments, Ireland hadn’t made a World Cup since 2002 and the other two weren’t expected to put up any sort of a fight.
The tie against Turkey this week comes exactly a year to the day of their opening qualifier against Azerbaijan – a match that gave a warning sign of the campaign ahead.
Despite complete dominance from start to finish, with 29 shots overall, 14 on target and a shade over two-thirds of possession, Portugal could only muster a 1-0 home win thanks to an own goal. It was three points on the board, but the disjointed performance and lacklustre finishing in front of goal wasn’t exactly reassuring.
Next up, a match that Portugal would look back on with deep regret and frustration. Fernando Santos’ men travelled to Belgrade to face qualification rivals Serbia. Portugal raced into a 2-0 lead after just 36 minutes courtesy of two goals from Liverpool man Diogo Jota – it was the perfect start against their biggest threat to qualification. Until Serbia turned the game on its head.
Dragan Stojković opted to make a double change at half-time, with one of those changes seeing Nemanja Radonjić enter the fray. Over the next fifteen minutes Serbia scored twice to level the match, Radonjić assisted both goals.
Then came the infamous moment in stoppage time.
With the game heading for a draw, Cristiano Ronaldo brilliantly turned in a brilliant effort past the goalkeeper and looked to have given Portugal all three points, Stefan Mitrović slid in to clear the ball but only after it had clearly crossed the line. The one man in the stadium who didn’t believe it had gone in, however, was referee Danny Makkelie.
With no VAR or goal-line technology in operation, the Dutch official waved play on, only realising after the match that the goal should have stood.
He quickly issued an apology, but for Portugal, it was two points lost.
Both Portugal and Serbia were expected to continue to pick up points against the other three sides in Group A, so quickly became obvious that their clash in Lisbon on the final matchday would be the decisive match. That would go on to be the case, with both sides picking up 13 points of a possible 15 over five matches before their crunch clash.
Going into the final showdown in Lisbon, Portugal simply had to avoid defeat.
It took only 95 seconds for the Portuguese to get off to a dream start, with Renato Sanches scoring their quickest goal in qualifying to put them 1-0 ahead. In hindsight, that goal didn’t help them, with Santos’ side sitting retreating further back as time progressed and inviting pressure and the inevitable. Serbia obliged and began to use the space Portugal allowed them, controlling possession and eventually forcing an equaliser half an hour later through the influential Dušan Tadić.
Serbia continued to dominate and in the 90th minute, disaster struck for Portugal. Half-time substitute Aleksandar Mitrović scored a last-gasp winner to send his nation to Qatar and send Portugal into the dreaded playoffs.
In truth, the damage was done across the final two matchdays in November, with Portugal’s defeat to Serbia being proceeded by a drab 0-0 draw in Dublin against the Republic of Ireland.
Across those final two matches, Portugal put in their worst two attacking displays of the campaign – mustering just three shots on target in both games and having a lower expected goals total across those two games combined (1.14) than in any single match in the qualification campaign before it.
All the Ingredients but No Real Recipe
Without doubt one of the biggest issues Fernando Santos has faced in recent years is finding a system to get the best out of the world-class talent at his disposal. This is where the disconnect and lack of faith in Santos from a section of supporters stems from, supporters who believe that Portugal should be trying to move away from Santos’ more pragmatic style of play and transition into a side who are fluid, attacking and free flowing. When you look through the Portugal squad, it is chock-full of players who are making big impacts at top clubs, week in, week out.
Seven of Portugal’s squad for the play-offs have at least 10 goal involvements across the top five European leagues in 2021-22 so far, with one of those – Diogo Jota – in the form of his life at Liverpool, having scored 19 goals in his first season at the club: the fourth highest tally of any Premier League player across all competitions.
The talented trio of Bernardo Silva, João Cancelo and Rúben Dias are three names that are almost guaranteed to be in the starting eleven each week for Manchester City as they fight for the quadruple this season.
Portugal’s all-time leading scorer Cristiano Ronaldo has 18 competitive goals this season at the age of 37, while teammate Bruno Fernandes’ 13 assists beaten by only Trent Alexander-Arnold of Premier League players across all competitions in 2021-22.
Then there is Nuno Mendes, Raphaël Guerreiro, Renato Sanches and João Félix among various others. These are all Champions League calibre players, yet for Portugal, Santos hasn’t been able to find a system that enables them to transition their club form into a Seleção shirt.
Portugal in 2016 were disciplined, industrious and hard to beat, it was those gritty performances that brought Portugal their first senior international title. It wasn’t perfect or aesthetically pleasing at times, but it ‘got the job done’ and that triumph will be etched in the memory of every Portuguese supporter who witnessed it.
However, six years after that Euro triumph, Portugal have only put in a handful of truly memorable performances: the UEFA Nations League final versus Holland being one, the 4-1 dismantling of Croatia in 2021 being another – those matches demonstrated what Portugal can be when it all clicks, a mixture of industry and dynamism, rugged but also fluid.
The frequency of those type of performances, however, is what has alarmed many supporters, who believe that with such an abundance of talent to choose from, Portugal should be playing on the front foot, with no fear, regardless of the opponent and competing with the very best teams in the world.
Struggles Against a Back Three or Five
Portugal have shown on more than one occasion, that when faced with a team playing a back three or a back five, they often struggle to cope.
A great example of this struggle was the 4-2 defeat against Germany at Euro 2020, where despite scoring twice, it was a nightmare performance for Portugal. They conceded four times, but it could have been much worse.
Germany’s expected goals total (2.64) was the fifth highest by a team in a match within the European Championship group stages last summer, with their 12 shots having an average xG of 0.22. Much of their attacking output came via wingbacks Robin Gosens and Joshua Kimmich – their xG and xA totals combined for the match were 1.36 (Gosens) and 0.62 (Kimmich), while Gosens was able to have seven touches in the opposition box from his wingback role.
In both of matches against Serbia, Stojković set his side up in a 3-5-2/3-5-1-1 with the attack minded Andrija Živković and Filip Kostić at right and left wing-back respectively. Both players were able to continually get at Portugal’s full backs, denying João Cancelo and Nuno Mendes the space or time to get out with the ball and positionally Serbia forced Cancelo especially back, stopping him from getting forward and influencing the game in an attacking sense.
Even in the matches that Portugal went into as heavy favourites, such as the two games against the Republic of Ireland, they struggled against the three central defenders, especially when Matt Doherty and Séamus Coleman dropped in either side of Egan and O’Shea to form a back five and at times a back six when a central midfielder would drop in.
It took a late brace from Ronaldo to spare Portugal’s blushes, scoring an 89th minute equaliser and a dramatic 96th minute winner after Portugal had spent just under half the game 1-0 down.
In the return leg in Ireland, it was much of the same problems. This time, Portugal limped to a 0-0 draw, in a match that saw the possession split near enough evenly (49% – 51%), it was the perfect tactical set-up to frustrate Portugal and the most alarming thing was their inability to find a way around it.
When it rains it pours.
At the moment, it seems like Portugal are collecting a new injury every day. Couple that with their existing suspensions, and the starting XI for the crucial Turkey play-off meeting is not looking anything close to full strength.
The latest player to drop out is veteran central defender Pepe, who has contracted Covid-19 so will be out of the Turkey game at the very least. Rúben Dias is also out through injury, meaning that Portugal will be without their starting central defence pairing. Lille captain José Fonte is likely to take a place in the starting XI, possibly alongside Danilo Pereira who is a defensive midfielder by trade but has operated at centre-back this season for PSG.
One player missing via suspension will be their world-class fullback João Cancelo. You only have to look back to Portugal’s Euro 2020 performance to see how much Cancelo’s absence is felt in the national team. Usually, you’d expect his replacement to be Wolves’ Nélson Semedo, however he is also injured, meaning at right-back Santos has either Cédric Soares or Diogo Dalot to choose from.
Rúben Neves, who has been in exceptional form under Bruno Lage this season, was included in the original squad but has also to withdraw due to injury, being replaced by Porto wonderkid Vitinha. Their final goalscorer in the group stage of qualifying, Renato Sanches, also misses out in this match due to injury.
Fernando Santos is not likely to shake things up too much, despite that not being what supporters undoubtedly want to see. He has remained loyal to his methods throughout his tenure, and it would be a huge surprise if he was to completely change his approach in a game as important as this one is.
If Portugal progress, they then face the winner of the North Macedonia versus Italy tie, meaning that at least one of the last two European Championship winners (2016 & 2020) will be missing out on the World Cup.
It’s not all doom and gloom however, with Portugal having the attacking options coming into this game in brilliant form – if they get a chance in front of goal, you’d fancy them to take their chances.
One ounce of comfort for Portugal fans is that their opponents Turkey had an even worse Euro 2020 than themselves, while their only meeting against opponents in the calibre of Portugal since then seeing them suffer a 6-1 defeat to Netherlands in September 2021.
Portugal won’t care how they do it, but they are counting on their national side to get the job done.
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Design by Matt Sisneros.