Coach Fernando Santos has a quality squad at his disposal to enjoy a deep run in the tournament after their unlikely title-winning run in 2016.
Portugal will begin their title defence against Hungary on Tuesday in the Euro 2020 opener. Tuesday’s match is the easiest for Portugal – at least on paper – because it is in a “Group of Death” with World Cup winners France and traditional giants Germany. Normally, when three big teams are placed in the same group, one of them must exit the tournament early, but that is not the case this time. With four of the best third-placed teams having a chance to advance to the knockout stages, all three heavyweights will be hoping to make it out of their group.
In a major boost, Cristiano Ronaldo will lead his side out against Hungary in Budapest’s Puskas Arena, where over 60,000 spectators will be present on Tuesday. “It’s perfect. I wish every single venue could host a full house. It’s great for viewers and players, but sadly it’s not up to us to decide,” said Ronaldo. “We know the pandemic has its influence. I wish we could always play before a full house.”
When Portugal takes on Hungary in their first match, Ronaldo will be looking to break a couple of records. He needs six more goals to break the all-time International goal scoring record and one more goal to break the record for most goals scored at the European Championship.
Iranian Ali Daei’s all-time mark of 109 international goals, is in touching distance for the Juventus forward. Ronaldo is also currently level with Michel Platini’s tally of nine goals in Euros and Tuesday would be a perfect opportunity for him to break that record. The Portugal captain is also set to become the first player to feature in five European Championships.
“I’m not overwhelmed by this record,” he said. “It is a good record but more important than this would be to win back-to-back Euros. It’s important that we start with a victory. The crowd will be on their side but it’s good to play in front of a crowd. I’m going to enjoy this and the team is ready.”
The common belief is that Portugal will start with a 4-3-3 formation. Rui Patricio is expected to start in between the posts as their first-choice goalkeeper. However, Manchester City’s right-back, Joao Cancelo, has been ruled out of Portugal’s Euro squad after testing positive for COVID-19 on Sunday. He enjoyed a fabulous season under an almost-all conquering Pep Guardiola side. Cancelo’s absence will be a massive blow for the team. He defends well and contributes significantly in the attacking third.
But Santos can rely upon Nelson Semedo. He enjoyed a good campaign with Premier League club Wolverhampton Wanderers in the recently concluded season. Borussia Dortmund full-back Raphael Guerreiro’s experience might help him get the nod ahead of Sporting Lisbon’s Nuno Mendes. Premier League Player of the Season winner, Ruben Dias, will be an automatic choice in defence, while one of Pepe or Jose Fonte might partner him.
It will be between Danilo Pereira, Ruben Neves and William Carvalho to occupy two of the three holding midfield slots. Bruno Fernandes will be expected to be the bridge between midfield and attack. Diogo Jota and Bernardo Silva are also expected to play in the left and right-wing respectively with Ronaldo set to lead the team as their sole striker.
As good as a goal scorer Ronaldo is, he often thrives in a team where he plays as an inverted winger or a second striker. During his Manchester United days, he used to cut inside from the flanks as he predominantly played on the left side and was supported by Wayne Rooney, Carlos Tevez, and Dimitar Berbatov down the middle.
In Real Madrid, Karim Benzema took over the role as the lone centre-forward. Staring from left, Ronaldo can go behind Benzema to go one-on-one with the keeper or the Frenchman can make the runs behind Ronaldo, thereby stretching the defence to allow Ronaldo to have shots from the edge of the box.
In Juventus, any one of Alvaro Morata or Paulo Dybala normally play alongside Ronaldo, freeing the space for the Portuguese to have a crack at the goal. If Portugal play Ronaldo as their lone centre-forward, it would become slightly easier for the opponents to mark and close him down. As a result, the 36-year-old will be forced to play with his back to the goal, holding the ball up for his teammates rather than getting on the end of those through balls.
In order to get the best out of Ronaldo, he needs a supporting striker – players, who can make runs behind the backline to stretch the defence, allowing room for Ronaldo to work his magic. This means Andre Silva or Joao Felix might start down the middle, but in that case, one of Jota, Bernardo Silva or Fernandes have to be sacrificed. Hence, it will be interesting to see how the coach will set up his team on Tuesday.