Connect in the back of the net

Below is the first article of a Euro 2016 column called “Footé in France” by O-Posts mainstay and top football writer, Adam Gray.

Fernando Santos isn’t one for making sweeping changes. When he took over from Otto Rehhagel as Greece coach in 2010 he maintained the same core of players, and the defensive tactics that won them Euro 2004, despite calls to move on from the disappointing defence of their trophy at Euro 2008 and a first round exit in the 2010 World Cup.

Now Santos, once known for cutting the animated figure who chain-smoked on the touchline, leads Portugal into Euro 2016 and his pragmatism is in full effect once again. Faith has been invested in the tried and tested with 14 of the 23 man squad aged 27 or over. There are the same familiar names, Ricardo Quaresma, Joao Moutinho, Nani, Pepe, Bruno Alves and the 38 year old Ricardo Carvalho.

Cristiano Ronaldo, fresh from winning Real Madrid’s eleventh Champions League title, will be there too of course but with the winger now aged 31 the clock is beginning to run down on a career that until now lacked an international trophy to go with a glittering array of silverware.

Ronaldo has hit 51 goals this season and will be typically determined to produce his best form on the continent’s grandest stage. As he was interviewed on the pitch in Milan as Real celebrated their triumph his focus immediately switched to this summer in France, but to go far the Portuguese will have to find a way not only to ease the burden on the free-scoring winger but to shore up the defensive leaks that saw them concede 7 goals en route to crashing out of the group stage in Brazil 2014.

The erstwhile pairing of Pepe and Carvalho ensured they ran a tight ship in qualifying, reaching France with just 5 goals shipped across 8 matches, while in William Carvalho, a long-term big-money target for Arsenal, they have a fierce shield protecting them in midfield. The tough-tackling Carvalho, now a regular member of the Seleccao with 17 caps by the age of 24, will provide the platform on which Moutinho and, most likely Valencia’s Andre Gomes, can dictate the rhythm of possession.

Gomes’s 5 caps to date is due to a past disrupted by injuries, but the 22 year old has seemingly put those issues behind him to blossom into a fine playmaker in Spain and will help to ease the absence of Zenit’s Danny, missing the tournament after tearing knee ligaments in April.

Gomes’s catalogue of clever skills and creative flair will provide ammunition to Nani and Ronaldo, likely to be in his regular position on the left, who will carry the threat from wide areas.

Here is where Santos finds his biggest dilemma. After Ronaldo’s 56 goals from his 125 caps and Nani’s 18 goals from 94, their highest scoring attacking player is Quaresma, tied with Moutinho, on 4 goals. Eder, who has just completed a move to Lille after a disappointing spell at Swansea, has just 2 from 23 caps, his latest strike coming in Sunday’s 3-0 friendly win over Norway, and a long-standing problem for Portugal is again prevalent.

Sporting Braga’s Rafa Silva is yet to score from 6 caps but is more familiar to a deeper role as a creative midfielder, so Santos’s main task is to find a clinical striker who can thrive upon the chances that will be provided by their array of attacking midfielders, or move Ronaldo central, away from the left-side where he is so often housed in Madrid.

That would open one of the flanks, with Nani also able to play either side, to Renato Sanches, with these European Championships offering the 18 year old the chance to justify the £27.5 million Bayern Munich have just shelled out on him.

Sanches only made his Benfica debut in October but has impressed many with his powerful, direct displays on the wing which have convinced Bayern to spend big money and Santos to make him the youngest player ever called up to a Portugal squad for a major tournament, beating Ronaldo’s 12-year record.

With Ronaldo missing the friendly with England on Thursday as he recovers from his Champions League excursions with Madrid, Sanches is likely to be given an opportunity and it could well be that Santos opts for a three-man front line with Ronaldo the focal point and Nani and Sanches out wide.

With Danilo Pereira, Joao Mario and Adrien Silva all included as technically gifted midfielders, Santos has options going forward, but will be looking for improvement from the game with Norway that, despite the result, produced a passive display.

“At half-time I told the players to bring more speed in the game when we had the ball” said the 61 year old coach, “some players are not yet fully in their rhythms, however. But we had to give freshness to the team for this final phase so we can be stronger.”

At the back the peerless experience of Pepe, Carvalho and Bruno Alves, now in his sixth major tournament with Portugal, will be vital, while Southampton’s captain Jose Fonte and Benfica’s Eliseu can offer able back-up if needed.

Raphael Guerrieiro, Lorient’s 22 year old left-back who was named in the team of the tournament as Portugal’s under-21s reached the semi-finals of the European Championships last summer, highlighted his potential with a stunning free-kick in the win over Norway and it is worth looking out for his willing runs from deep as he fills in for the Real Madrid’s injured Fabio Coentrao.

Iceland, Austria and Hungary will offer tricky competition in Group F, but with Santos hopeful that he has discovered the right mix of trusted experience and youthful vigour, a repeat of the run to the semi-finals of four years ago could be a realistic target.

To do that though he will have to find an answer to the Ronaldo question, or risk possessing all the creative bluster without anybody to take the chances.

 

Written by Adam Gray

Follow Adam on Twitter @AdamGray1250

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