After struggling to break down Hungary, the coach introduced attacking players who made an immediate difference in Portugal's 3-0 victory.
Portugal’s title defence got off to a flying start against Hungary on Tuesday, thanks to a brace from captain Cristiano Ronaldo and timely substitutions by coach Fernando Santos. The 36-year-old Juventus forward netted two late goals before Raphael Guerreiro opened the scoring from a deflected shot with just six minutes from time. It was Ronaldo’s record-breaking night that stole the show in their 3-0 win. Their skipper, who became the first player to feature in five European Championships, is now the all-time leading scorer in the competition. With the double, the striker now has 11 goals, leapfrogging Michel Platini’s tally of nine strikes for France.
Besides, Ronaldo is also closing in on another major record. He is only three goals shy of former Iran striker Ali Daei’s tally of 109 international goals. With the form he is currently in, the former Manchester United striker might very well break that record in this tournament. However, the 3-0 scoreline was a bit harsh on the resilient Hungary team, who held a great defensive shape. Portugal did miss a couple of chances in the first half through Diogo Jota and Ronaldo.
Barring those scary moments, the home side prevented their much-fancied opponents from creating many openings. After gaining confidence from their first-half showing, Hungary took the game to Portugal at every available opportunity in the second period. Against the run of play, Szabolcs Schon cut inside from the right and found the back of the net to the delight of the home crowd. But their celebration was short-lived as the goal was ruled out due to offside. It was after this point, Portugal ran riot, but they still needed a deflected strike from Raphael Guerreiro to open the scoring six minutes from time.
Portugal were expected to dominate the possession and they did just that on Tuesday. As predicted, Hungary sat behind and nullified the threat of Portugal’s superstars for most of the game. Nonetheless, Santos’ boys had enough firepower and talent to win the match, but they struggled to break down Hungary’s well-drilled defence for most of the evening.
The majority of the play was happening in front of Hungary’s defence and they were hardly stretched. Portugal started to become predictable as the home side were happy to sit back and intercept the passes or clear the crosses. Placed in a “Group of Death” with World Cup winners France and traditional giants Germany, Tuesday’s match was the easiest for Portugal – at least on paper.
With more difficult opponents awaiting them in their remaining two matches, Santos knew that three points was a must in this game. Chasing the opening goal, their coach made few attack-minded substitutions, bringing on Rafa Silva at 71st minute before throwing in Renato Sanches and Andre Silva ten minutes later. The impact was swift as Portugal scored three late goals.
Explaining the reasons behind the substitutions, Santos told reporters after the match, “In the second half… we were a bit anxious as the clock was ticking and we wanted to win. I started subbing in some players to increase the pace of the game. I moved Ronaldo to the left a bit and released Raphael because I thought he wasn’t getting close to the goal. He played a great game… so we let him move inside.”
“Sometimes you get things right and sometimes you don’t get them right, but we always strive for the best. The players that came on did very well, and the ones that went off also did well.”
The coach gave an inside into his decision to allowing Guerreiro to cut inside from left-back, which turned out to be a master stroke. The Borussia Dortmund full-back forced the opening goal through a deflected strike. It opened the floodgates as the stage was set for Ronaldo to steal the show.
Sanches was a livewire from the moment he came on. It was his lung-bursting run, which saw him skip past few tackles and shoulder challenges from Hungary players, that opened the path for the second goal. He displayed tremendous physical strength before laying the ball to Rafa Silva, who was brought down by Hungary defender Willi Orban. It allowed Ronaldo to score his record-breaking goal from the penalty spot.
In injury time, Ronaldo combined superbly with Rafa Silva in the penalty box to score his 106th international goal. Ronaldo, often thrives in a team where he plays as an inverted winger or a second striker, was at his best when Andre Silva slotted in as a central striker. It was no surprise that both his goals came after this tweak.
Besides, Santos raised a few eyebrows when he started with two defensive midfielders – Danilo Pereira and William Carvalho. The impressive performance of Sanches demonstrated that the manager may need to be a little bolder in his team selection. If Portugal are to score more goals and dominate opponents, Santos should consider dropping one of the two defensive midfielders to make room for Sanches in the starting line-up. It will allow Portugal to be more expansive in their gameplay.