Uefa Nations League: Cristiano Ronaldo's Portugal uncomfortable with favourites tag
European champions full of in-form veterans but led by Bernardo Silva who had breakout season with Manchester City
A new competition in the crowded calendar of elite football starts off with an obligation to prove it is not one competition too many. For the Uefa Nations League, shoe-horned into the diary to simulate dates previously taken up by friendlies, so far so good.
The initial phases, last autumn, were refreshing and stimulated parts of the European landscape where ambitions had become stunted.
The device that placed countries in different divisions, with a generous allocation of promotion and relegation, produced eye-catching storylines: Germany went down to the second tier; Kosovo were promoted from the fourth, and from the segment of the hierarchy just below the traditional heavyweights, plenty of signs of renaissance.
Take the Netherlands, delighted to be at this week’s final tournament chiefly because they failed to qualify for both the last World Cup and Euro 2016. They reached it having finished above the last two European nations to have won the World Cup, Germany and France, in the toughest three-team group from League A.
Take England, continuing the rise that took them to a World Cup semi-final last year, and proud to have finished their qualifying group ahead of Spain and Croatia. Switzerland, meanwhile, extravagantly cast off the idea their football is cautious and crabby by scoring 14 goals in the four qualifiers that left them ahead of Belgium and Iceland.
The Swiss reward? The possibility of a major international title, which would be a first. But to get closer to that, they must overcome the Nations League favourites in the opening semi-final on Wednesday night.
Portugal, as hosts, would be entitled to 'favourite' status even if they were not the reigning European champions, and preparing next year to defend the title they seized at Euro 2016. Yet favourites is a tag that sits a little awkwardly with manager Fernando Santos.
“Would people say we were the favourites if Germany, France and Spain were here?,” he asked as his players gathered for first practice last week.
Perhaps not, but nor are this Portugal the outsiders they seemed when they ground their way through the early rounds of Euro 2016, and then outwitted the hosts in Paris on the most memorable night in the national team’s history.
The squad Santos has assembled for this challenge looks stronger than three years ago. Bernardo Silva, so crucial to Manchester City’s record-breaking triumph in the Premier League, was absent with injury then; he is a leader of the side now.
There is the Wolves dividend, too. Four of the Portuguese who propelled Wolverhampton Wanderers to seventh place a year after promotion to England’s top division, have been selected by Santos.
Meanwhile, ready to line up in Portugal’s defence in this tournament of renascent teams is a pair of footballers who have defied age to launch their own renaissances in the past 12 months.
The first is Jose Fonte, now 35, who was playing in China this time 12 months ago and apparently winding down his career. He joined Lille last summer and became one of the totems of their impressive second-place finish in France’s Ligue 1.
There is no retiring for Pepe, either. The former Real Madrid centre-back rejoined Porto, the club he left 12 years ago, from Besiktas in January and showed that, at 36, he has lost none of his steel. A Portugal v Switzerland with Pepe on one side and Granit Xhaka on the other will not be played at the tempo of a friendly.
Then there is Cristiano Ronaldo, who missed the group phase of the Nations League in order, according to Santos, to be allowed time to settle in at Juventus, the club Ronaldo joined last summer. He will wear the captain’s armband, and, as ever, be the focus of attention and of Portugal's attacking strategy.
It is rare season that Ronaldo does not finish with a major European prize - in four of the last five he was lifting the Uefa Champions League with Real Madrid - and for the five-times winner of the Ballon D’Or and serial collector of medals, the inaugural Nations League trophy is an opportunity.
It is also a chance to settle a debt. Ronaldo, 34, is the one survivor in Portugal’s squad from the Euro 2004 squad. In that tournament, Portugal were hosts, he was the teenaged prodigy who established his importance through a rollercoaster journey to the final.
He was in tears, though, at the end of it, after unsung Greece produced a startling 1-0 win in Lisbon.
This time, Ronaldo’s partner up front may well be a 19-year-old prodigy. Much is expected of Joao Felix, a slender, immensely skilful forward who has enjoyed an outstanding first senior season at champions Benfica.
He already has a stellar line-up of suitors - City, Real Madrid, Manchester United - imagining he might be his generation's equivalent to a next Ronaldo. Over the next five days, he has his chance to show he can be that.
Updated: June 5, 2019 03:30 PM