You can follow Eric Krakauer on Twitter @bigsoccerheadny
With only two goals in three European qualifiers, Portugal’s main concern against a struggling Serbia will be how to put the ball in the back of the net.
Even though Cristiano Ronaldo has consistently padded his scoring tally since breaking into the national team in 2003 – he is Portugal’s all-time scoring leader with 52 goals – no one else on the team has proven a reliable finisher.
The scoring issue is certainly not new for the Portuguese. Apart from Eusebio, Pauleta, and the current Ballon d’Or, Portugal has never been able to address its goal-scoring predicament, which has proven an insurmountable obstacle for a nation desperate to lift its first senior trophy.
Paulo Bento, Portugal’s former manager, attempted to mitigate the problem by instilling a system that catered to Ronaldo’s scoring prowess. With his talismanic captain scoring in droves in La Liga, Bento mimicked Real Madrid’s 433 hoping to achieve similar results. The experiment worked insofar as it got the most out of Ronaldo, but it became painfully obvious – especially at the World Cup – that there was no plan B if the captain suffered a dip in form.
Since replacing Bento in September, Fernando Santos has had to address Portugal’s Ronaldo-dependency. However, Portugal’s last two qualifiers against Denmark and Armenia have done little to dispel the notion that Portugal is a one-man team, with Ronaldo scoring both winning goals.
Nevertheless, while relying on Ronaldo appears to be an inevitability, there has been a marked difference in the approaches of both managers. While Bento catered his tactics to Ronaldo’s preferences, Santos has demonstrated a willingness to tinker with his tactics until he finds system that benefits the entire group. And that includes finally starting Ronaldo as a central striker, rather than in his preferred role as a left-forward.
The indicators of such a change were already on display against Denmark and Armenia. Santos discarded with the 433 – the first time a Portuguese manager had done so in an official game since 2010 – and set-up his teams in 442 diamond formations. Playing as one of the top two in both games, Ronaldo was afforded the opportunity to roam around without jeopardizing the team’s defensive stability – something the Real Madrid man was accused of during Bento’s tenure.
Against Serbia, it is likely that Santos will stick with the formation that has earned Portugal six points in two games. The question now is whom the manager will pair Ronaldo with. Helder Postiga has been dropped from the squad after a poor performance against Armenia, and while Nani and Danny remain viable options, neither was particularly impressive up-front. Hugo Almeida has been brought back, but given his less than stellar scoring record with the national team, there’s a feeling that he won’t make it past the bench.
Whoever Santos decides to go with, one thing is pretty clear. The manager was brought in to see Portugal cruise through the qualifiers, and the expectation is that with three games under his belt (including a friendly against France) the team should be primed for a home win against a wounded opponent on Sunday.
- Real Madrid defender, Pepe, has not recovered from an injury, and has been ruled out of Sunday’s game against Serbia.
- The Court of Arbitration of Sport has reduced Fernando Santos’ eight-game suspension to two. Santos was found guilty of inappropriate conduct after Greece lost to Costa Rica in the World Cup round of 16. The Portuguese manager will not be on the bench for the next two qualifiers against Serbia and Armenia. First team coach, Ilidio Vale will take over bench duties during Santos’ suspension.
- Santos has called up fourteen extra players for Tueday’s game against Cape Verde. The manager is using the friendly to experiment with fringe players. Noteworthy call-ups include Ivan Cavaleiro (Deportivo), Bernardo Silva (Monaco), Adrien Silva and Paulo Oliveira (Sporting), and Pizzi (Benfica). All fourteen players will be in attendance when Portugal host Serbia. Jose Fonte’s brother, Rui Fonte (Belenenses), has also been called up. The Southampton defender has taken to Twitter to express his pleasure about being joined by his brother on international duty.