Portugal at World Cup 2022: How Cristiano Ronaldo and co. find themselves facing playoffs to qualify for Qatar


In all likelihood Portugal will be at next year’s World Cup in Qatar. They may have been pipped to the post in shock fashion by Serbia on Sunday but they are currently top seeds for March’s playoffs, which offer three more spots at next winter’s finals.

The makeup of those playoff rounds is yet to be confirmed but the likes of Scotland, North Macedonia and Finland ought not to offer too many nervy nights to what is, on paper, the most formidable frontline in European football right now. The issue with Portugal is that a lot of their strengths are a lot more visible off the pitch than on it. That is quite something for a team that have won a European Championships and Nations League in the last five years.

Cristiano Ronaldo and company are surely desperate to complete a clean sweep of the biggest honors available to European nations by hoisting the World Cup in Lusail come December of next year but for now there are more prosaic matters to attend to. Having gone into the final round of games seemingly in the driver’s seat in Group A, Portugal are now asking themselves if they will even be at the tournament. Not for nothing did sports newspaper Record describe their loss to Serbia as “global shame”.

How Group A slipped away

That is perhaps a harsh assessment of a loss to a Serbia side that may have been one of the better second seeds in UEFA’s 10 groups. Any team with Sergej Milinkovic Savic, Dusan Vlahovic and Dusan Tadic — with free scoring star of the Championship Aleksandar Mitrovic to come off the bench — can be expected to win a lot of games. Couple that with a small group with little strength in depth and the stakes become all the greater for the two meetings between these sides.

For as much as Portugal will feel frustrated about last night’s 2-1 defeat in which Mitrovic’s last gasp header doomed them to the playoffs, they might also look back at letting a two goal lead slip away in the second half of their first meeting in Belgrade. Diogo Jota’s brace seemingly put O Selecao in control of their group but goals from Mitrovic and Filip Kostic that night fueled an impressive qualifying campaign from Dragan Stojkovic’s side. Equally, any Portuguese players who believed in fate might have looked back at the Cristiano Ronaldo goal wrongly adjudged to have been cleared off the line by Stefan Mitrovic and wonder if this just was not their year.

Though Portugal might have felt disappointed with just a point on their trip to Serbia Fernando Santos and his staff could have looked at it as a perfectly adequate start in Group A. Avoid defeat away to your toughest opponent, win out in your remaining group games and then get the job done at the Estadio Da Luz. It is a template that has served top European sides well over decades of qualifying and for most of 2021 it was one they followed.

The issue was rather what happened in Dublin. The Republic of Ireland may have been in freefall after defeat to Luxembourg at the start of the qualifying campaign but they had tightened up as 2021 wore on with Stephen Kenny’s players determined to keep him in a job. They offered a ringing endorsement of their manager’s qualities at the Aviva Stadium, holding Portugal to just two shots on target throughout the whole night, unlikely efforts from tight angles by Andre Silva in the 11th minute and Cristiano Ronaldo just before the final whistle. Ireland’s own CR7 — West Bromwich Albion striker Callum Robinson — looked no less likely to find the net than his opposing number on a night where the hosts ended up with more expected goals than a team ranked 43 places above them by FIFA.

These were Portugal’s first dropped points in World Cup qualifying since their trip to Belgrade. Beating the Irish would not have changed the equation in Lisbon, but it might have given Portugal some of the confidence and sense of purpose they so clearly lacked three days later.

Santos under pressure

Ronaldo was visibly fuming at the final whistle in Lisbon, gesturing in frustration towards his manager after shaking Santos’ hand. It was said in the immediate aftermath that the record scorer in men’s international football had been angered by Portugal’s refusal to go on the attack in the closing stages. The 1-1 draw they were holding at the time might have been enough to send them but playing for it left them one error away from defeat.

Speaking after the game Santos insisted he wanted his team to attack. “We started well, we scored a goal, then we started to have no ball, to drop the lines a lot,” he said. “I called the players over, tried to explain to them. Our wingers couldn’t be so far back, they had to climb higher. We always had a lot of difficulties; the players tried to do it, but when we had the ball, we [couldn’t]. Whenever we started attacking, we always created problems for the opponent – but most of the time we couldn’t.”

Certainly Santos’ message was not getting through. According to Wyscout tracking data, Portugal had just 39 percent possession in the final 15 minutes and did not once regain the ball in Serbia’s third of the pitch. Most of the nine passes they attempted into the danger area were hopeful punts aimed at Ronaldo, four of them desperate heaves after Mitrovic’s goal.

It was hardly the first time Portugal have looked devoid of ideas in such circumstances. For a team that can offer Ronaldo and Jota a supply line including Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Joao Moutinho, among many others, there has been a notable conservatism to the way Santos’ sides have played. That was found out at Euro 2020 when Belgium secured a lead in their round of 16 tie and effectively invited the Portuguese to repeatedly hit their head against a brick wall. Portugal often seem to have little semblance of an attacking plan beyond get it to Ronaldo, or maybe Jota. Midfield is something that happens to other countries.

A prosaic approach to attack might be fine if Santos were making the most of the abundant talent available in defense as well. That too is up for debate, however. All too often the Portugal backline looks easily punctured and incapable of adapting to anything beyond the plan they were sent out with. Nowhere was that more apparent than in the 4-2 loss to Germany at Euro 2020 where Portugal did not so much concede four goals as the same goal four times, consistently undone by overloads from wing backs who were not being tracked by the Portuguese frontline.

There was a similar tale of not learning in game in Lisbon. Not that this bizarre abandoning of the back post would be acceptable for Portugal if it was the first time it had happened. The hosts have five players to defend three for a possible short corner, meaning Ronaldo and Nuno Mendes are simply stood still as Tadic’s delivery comes across. Of course there is no time for them to run across the line and deal with Mitrovic and Uros Spajic but the defenders as a whole need to shuffle a long way towards their back post.

Dusan Tadic delivers the cross from which Serbia score the goal that qualifies them for the World Cup
Wyscout/Sport TV

Perhaps the key issue here is that this was not some one-off error. The Portuguese defense had already fallen asleep at the far post in the first half, allowing a back-pedalling Vlahovic to test Rui Patricio with a header, and Tadic was consistently firing his deliveries into that area.

What comes next?

It would not take much for Santos to fire back at this detractors, he merely needs to unveil his Euro 2016 and 2019 Nations League winners’ medals. He is hardly the only coach of a top European nation who may be said to deliver fare that is less than the sum of its parts. In many ways it is the nature of the international game, with minimal time set aside for training sessions and team chemistry, that the standard of play is lower than these players can produce in carefully cultivated club systems.

Ultimately Portugal will probably be fine. Barring any slip ups by Italy in Northern Ireland on Monday they will be the best team in the hat when the draw is made for the second round of qualifying later this month. Then they will be two games from Qatar, albeit fixtures in which any slip ups lead to immediate elimination from contention.

This may ultimately serve as nothing more than a wake up call for players whose collective talent is more than enough to take them to the World Cup and potentially deep in the tournament itself. Portugal’s first knockout match on the road to Qatar ended in failure. Now they have a chance to make amends.





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