When is a one-man team not a one-man team? It sounds an impossible riddle but Portugal are two games from solving it in a manner that was barely imaginable before Euro 2016 began. The knee-jerk temptation, as they prepare for Wednesday’s semi-final against Wales, is to frame their next test as the battle of Cristiano Ronaldo and Gareth Bale – but the fact that such a billing does not really ring true says plenty about the stealthy nature of their progress so far.
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It has been hard to find much positive press about Portugal’s tournament. They have certainly not sparkled and their two knock-out games – that extra-time slog against Croatia and the win on penalties against Poland – have been wars of attrition. To take part in one snoozefest might be construed as unfortunate; to be complicit in two raises wider questions and it is no stretch to say that, of the four remaining contenders, Portugal are the least loved by neutrals.
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Yet they deserve to be looked at with rather more nuance. Fernando Santos, whose four stodgy years with Greece colour perceptions from the start, may not appear the most expansive of coaches but the signs are that he is solving a problem that has weighed Portugal down for years. No longer are they dependent on Ronaldo to decide matches for them; Santos has moulded a team that can give his star player a platform to shine but, just as importantly, compensate for his off days – a delicate balancing act that has borne fruit so far.

Portugal's Cristiano Ronaldo (R) watches with team mates during the penalty shootout

Image credit: Reuters

While Ronaldo has toiled, his brace against Hungary apart, others have stepped up. Renato Sanches, the precocious 18-year-old who will join Bayern Munich next season, marked his first start with the equaliser and a coolly-taken penalty against Poland; Pepe, who is an injury concern for the Wales game after missing training with a thigh muscle problem, was at his dominant best in that game and it was telling that Santos referred to him as one of “the right arms of the coach” afterwards. “At certain times of the game, everyone has to assume their role as leaders,” Santos said, and that is the refrain – that all 23 Portugal players are dependent on one another.

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That includes Ronaldo. Before the tournament it might have beggared belief that the Real Madrid forward would miss as many chances as he has without serious consequences for the team. But his overall performances have not flagged and he wielded his influence during as the Poland game reached its denouement when he cajoled a reluctant Joao Moutinho to take – and score – a penalty. Andre Gomes, who faced the media on Tuesday, highlighted that Ronaldo exists within a successful framework.

Portugal's Renato Sanches celebrates after scoring their first goal

Image credit: Reuters

“He has been working for the group and the group is the most important,” Gomes said. “Maybe people were waiting for more goals, but he has made the best contribution to the team.”
Perhaps Santos, instilling the rigour of his Greece side into players with superior technical ability, is on to something. His most surprising success so far is the taming of Ricardo Quaresma, Portugal’s long-standing enigma, who had a positive influence during the qualifiers and has been their unlikely hero in the finals. Quaresma’s ability to knuckle down and be part of a team structure has often been in question, but his second-round winner and clinching penalty in the last-eight suggested he now has the mettle to perform diligently at this level and he sounded deadly serious when he said that Santos “deserves my respect forever” and “is one of the few [coaches] to give me the confidence I needed”.
Quaresma is an unlikely poster boy for success but Santos’ faith in his unpredictable gifts is a reminder of something else: that Portugal are not quite the joyless outfit painted in some quarters. In all but one of their five games they have taken more shots than their opponents, and the figures are eyecatching: 27 against Iceland, 23 against Austria, 19 in the 3-3 draw against Hungary and 17 against Poland. The only aberration came against Croatia, with only five attempted – two of which resulted in Quaresma’s goal – during the 120 minutes of a match that Santos deliberately set out to close down.
He had feared that Croatia’s playmakers, Luka Modric and Ivan Rakitic, might pick his team apart and chose to shore up the midfield by fielding Adrien Silva. It was another way to skin a cat, and it paid off handsomely. Portugal are likely to be circumspect against Wales, too, with Gareth Bale-led counter-attacks coming under particular scrutiny in their preparations.
“Would I like us to be pretty? Yes,” said Santos after the Poland game. “But in between being pretty and being at home, or ugly and being here, I prefer to be ugly.” It should not be construed as a commitment to negative football; it is merely an admission that Portugal will do whatever a situation demands to get the right result. Their inclusive approach has worked so far and, even if an on-song Ronaldo proves the key to bettering Bale in Lyon, the notion that they are a one-man show backed up by a gang of artisans has been proved thoroughly outmoded.
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