Portugal look to be building a dynasty after clinching Uefa Nations League title
Still led by Cristiano Ronaldo but Portugal have a host of young talent to carry them into the future
The inaugural Uefa Nations League, a competition initially greeted with scepticism, signed off on Sunday with spring in its step. It has turned out to be a largely positive addition to football’s crowded calendar.
Its inaugural final, won 1-0 at Porto's Dragao stadium by Portugal, did justice to its lively spirit, allbeit after a tepid start.
The losers, Holland, acknowledged that, by the end, they looked less like champions than their hosts. Partly that’s because Portugal have now learned what it takes to corral their talent into an efficient tournament unit.
European championship winners in 2016, against the odds, now Nations League holders, the Portuguese might soon be challenging their neighbours across the border for sustained mastery of their continent. Spain won successive Euros in 2008 and 2012; Portugal look in good shape to mount a convincing defence of their Euro title in 2020.
Ronald Koeman’s young Dutch squad, meanwhile, have had their impressive renaissance checked, but they have plenty of room to grow from here. What Koeman realises, though, is that, without a strong finisher, trophies are hard to seize. “A goal made the difference,” said Koeman of the final, “and we struggled to create chances. Portugal deserved the victory.”
The goal on the night was not scored by Cristiano Ronaldo, the finisher de luxe and scorer of three goals in the semi-final against Switzerland, but by Goncalo Guedes, 12 years Ronaldo’s junior, who was ably abetted by the dazzling Bernardo Silva.
Besides the one incisive moment, in a match of few clear chances but plenty of suspense, Portugal had been typically well organised, and perhaps a little fresher than their opponents, who needed 120 minutes to come from behind and dispose of England in their semi. And the Dutch had a day’s less rest in between semi and final than the Portuguese.
Both teams certainly performed better than they had in their previous appearances in a major final. Portugal, as underdogs, ground their way to victory in Paris three summers ago to win their first ever Euro. In Porto, they were more accomplished, more proactive.
Meanwhile Koeman’s Holland did not, mercifully, adopt the Dutch strategy of 2010, when they took on Spain for the World Cup and deemed a rugged, even brutal, attitude was their best bet.
A decade on, this Holland is far less cynical, and with the likes of Virgil Van Dijk, Matthijs De Ligt and Frenkie Jong believe they can thwart opposition attacks with brain rather than brawn.
What they have not unearthed yet, to fortify the Koeman era, is the sort of striker that would elevate this Holland to principal contenders for Euro 2020. Ryan Babel, the veteran, had little impact in his 45 minutes against Portugal, while Memphis Depay will always spread alarm with his speed but very often let himself down with the quality of his first touch.
On Sunday, the excellent Ruben Dias, at centre-half for Portugal, always seemed a step ahead of Depay. How Koeman must long for a Marco van Basten, a Patrick Kluivert, a Dennis Bergkamp, or even a young Robin Van Persie, Arjen Robben or Wesley Sneijder to give his forward line some guile.
One striking statistic from what was a competitive and refreshingly clean final: Just two yellow cards, the first of them issued with a mere two minutes left of the 90. It was a contest in which VAR remained discreet, too.
All of which is a credit to referee Undiano Mallenco, who is about to retire, and who trusted his judgement, letting his video assistants come to him rather seeking their advice.
If the play was fluid, it was Portugal who made it sparkle. The goal was well worked. Bernardo Silva, inventive and busy as he has been all season for his club Manchester City, cleverly pierced the Van Dijk-De Ligt frontier with a brisk run and cutback pass, and Guedes set himself carefully for his drive. There was poise as well as power in the finish.
Guedes, who has had a sometimes unsettling journey from prodigy at Paris Saint-Germain to finding some stability at Valencia, will hope this marks a threshold in his career.
Above all, he must hope his place in Portugal’s history, as deliverer of a trophy, turns out less ephemeral than that of the man who won them the Euro 2016 final: That was Eder, a striker no longer in Portugal coach Fernando Santos’s plans and lately struggling for goals at Lokomotiv Moscow.
With Guedes, 22, joining the fine tradition of Portguese wingers, Bernardo Silva looking so imperious in the No 10 jersey and the likes of Joao Felix, 19, now part of the senior national squad, Portugal look stronger in attack then they did three years ago.
At the back, Ruben Dias exudes authority. And they can assume that, this time next year, assuming they qualify for the finals of Euro 2020, their defence of their title will still be led by Ronaldo, even if he will be 35. “He’ll be playing when he’s 50!” boomed the Porto president, Pinto da Costa, amid the celebrations.
The captain did not have his best game on Sunday, but when trophies are being awarded, Ronaldo always finds a way to take centre stage. His hat-trick in the semi-final ensured he finished as top scorer in the Nations League finals. His status meant it was his name that was sung most vividly around the Dragao.
Updated: June 10, 2019 02:11 PM