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Choke or champs: Which Portugal team will we see in UEFA Nations League Finals?

Leigh Copson 17 May 2019
Cristiano Ronaldo (credit:Joaquim Ferreira via Images)

From European Championship glory to a dismal World Cup showing to an underwhelming group campaign in the UEFA Nations League, the last few years have been a rollercoaster ride for the Portugal national team. So have the bookmakers made a mistake in making them favourites to win the Nations League Final in June?

READ MORE: We look at the other three teams bidding for UEFA Nations League glory this summer: England, the Netherlands & Switzerland.

Portuguese football rejoiced three years ago when the national team finally got its hands on a major trophy, but they were made to work for the history-making moment.

Cristiano Ronaldo & Co. scraped through the group stage after drawing all three of their games, and they then needed extra-time to beat Croatia in the last-16 before requiring a penalty shoot-out to finally get the better of Poland in the quarter-finals. They finally managed a victory in 90 minutes as they ended Wales’ fairytale run in the semi-finals, but they were up against an entire nation in the final against host nation France. Their chances of winning the tournament became even slimmer when Ronaldo was forced off early on, but Eder proved to be the unlikely hero when his extra-time strike finally settled the marathon contest. So could Portugal follow up that success with glory on the biggest stage?

Two years later they travelled to Russia for the World Cup and no sooner had they arrived they were heading back home. Prior to Euro 2016 the Portuguese had become a national team known for failing to live up to its potential at major international tournaments, and while they were not considered a front-runner for the 2018 World Cup they were expected to make it into the latter stages of the knockout phase. They once again overcame a poor group campaign to advance, with a 1-1 draw against Iran a particular lowlight, but they merely delayed the inevitable as an Edinson Cavani doubled condemned them to a 2-1 defeat to Uruguay in the last-16.

Coach Fernando Santos kept his job despite the poor showing in Russia and both he and his team looked to have rebounded well from that disappointment as they made a flying start to the UEFA Nations League with back-to-back wins over Italy and Poland. Their momentum was slowed by the two draws they recorded to conclude their campaign, but they had done enough to make it to this summer’s finals and the bookmakers have, despite that woeful World Cup showing, made them the outright favourites for the inaugural finals. The question is, were the bookies right to do that?

Portugal may be the reigning European champions but they have hardly been in sterling form since that famous night in France. They had to rely on a late stumble from Switzerland to automatically qualify for last summer’s World Cup and they go into the UEFA Nations League Finals having drawn each of their last four fixtures. Their most recent victory came against Scotland – who even Kazakhstan can beat – and they have now won only six of their last 16 games with the only victory over notable opposition in that time being that 1-0 success against Italy in the league stage of this competition. There have been draws against the likes of Spain, Belgium and Croatia, but draws will not get the job done in knockout football.

And of course, in the semi-finals Portugal are taking on a team that have proved that they can beat them – Switzerland. These two teams met in the qualifying stage for the 2018 World Cup and the Swiss brought the Portuguese crashing back down to Earth only a couple of months after they lifted the trophy at the European Championship. A couple of first-half goals did the damage, but there should be a note of caution when considering that result because Portugal were without Ronaldo on that night and when he was back in the fold for the return meeting, his team were 2-0 winners.

That is not to say Portugal are a one-man team, but any team would be weakened by his absence and he will undoubtedly play a key role for them this summer. If Ronaldo is on top form then he could single-handedly drag them to victory, but if he is not they do have enough talent in the squad to successfully negotiate the semi-final tie with a Swiss and set up a meeting with England or the Netherlands in the final.

However, there is always that dark cloud of ‘underperformance’ hanging over them. We have seen it time and time again – Portugal show up to a tournament with a bit of hype surrounding them and they almost invariably find a way to underwhelm and shoot themselves in the foot. So while I do understand the bookmakers standing by them as the European champions, there are plenty of red flags showing up when it comes to them living up to the ‘favourites’ tag. I would not be shocked to see them become the first ever UEFA Nations League winners, but on the flip side I would not be surprised to see them crash out in the semi-finals or lose out in the final itself. That is the rollercoaster ride that is the Portuguese national team!

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Choke or champs: Which Portugal team will we see in UEFA Nations League Finals?

Have the bookmakers made a mistake in making Portugal favourites to win the UEFA Nations League Final in June?

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