Youthful Portuguese future looks bright as they thump Croatia in Nations League
Defending European champions and inaugural UEFA Nations League winners Portugal returned to international football action with a ruthless 4-1 win over World Cup runners-up Croatia. Fernando Santos' strategy of not playing an out and out striker in his 4-3-3 formation paid dividends as the home side produced the most convincing display among the European elites on Matchday 1 of the 2020-21 Nations League.
Star player and Portuguese captain Cristiano Ronaldo was missing from the matchday squad with a toe infection caused by a bee-sting. Yet, Selecao showcased their immense potential with a near-flawless performance against the Croats.
A win against a top European side like Croatia is always worth looking at but the manner with which the 2018 World Cup finalists were dispatched off by a young deserving home side speaks volumes of the future in store.
Saturday night's performance was a complete domination by a side that looked barely rusty after a near 10-month hiatus from international football and Croatia, having started brightly in the match with a Nikola Vlasic chance inside two minutes, had to thank their young goalkeeper Dominik Livakovic for keeping the scoreline down to 4-1.
On a balmy yet empty night in Porto, Portugal's two pacy full-backs Joao Cancelo and Raphael Guerreiro combined beautifully with a skillful midfield set up to run riot in the opposition goal.
Manchester United midfielder Bruno Fernandes was again at the heart of Portuguese creativity as he and Wolves' veteran Joao Moutinho dominated the midfield action against the Balkan side that clearly missed the services of talismanic captain Luka Modric and the experienced Ivan Rakitic.
The crucial holding midfield play of Danilo Pereira gave the likes of Fernandes and Moutinho the license to link up with the forwards and this helped the coach in his strategy of not playing an outright striker although Andre Silva and Trincao were used in the second half as the Eintracht Frankfurt striker scored with the last kick of the match.
Zlatko Dalic's 4-2-3-1 system with Andrej Kramaric as a sole striker was intended to stifle the Portuguese midfield but the Croatian duo of Mateo Kovacic and Mario Pasalic in the base of that midfield struggled to keep pace with the runs of Man of the Match Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, and Diogo Jota.
FC Porto's defensive midfielder Pereira shielded his central defense brilliantly as he nullified the Croatian supply line in the form of Chelsea's player of the year Kovacic, Atatlanta's impressive midfielder Pasalic and CSKA Moscow's Nikola Vlasic. With Atletico Madrid prodigy Joao Felix looking sharp on the night, the Croatian defense looked out of pace against youthful Portuguese forward movements.
Croatia's Man of the Match was their young Dinamo Zagreb goalkeeper Livakovic by a long way, who had to make five excellent saves including a stunning double stop in the first half to keep the marauding Portugal attacks at bay. On the whole, the athletic keeper made seven saves although he could have done better with Joao Felix's first international goal on 70 minutes as the forward's well-struck shot screamed underneath Livakovic's diving arms to make it 3-0.
Such was the dominance of Fernando Santos' men that the woodwork came to the away side's rescue thrice in the same half in addition to those inspiring stops.
The luck finally ran out on the 25-year-old custodian four minutes before half time when Manchester City full-back Joao Cancelo opened the scoring for the home side with an unstoppable shot after cutting inside from the right-hand side.
As far as the home side's performance is concerned, the Portuguese faithful would be absolutely delighted with the fact that the team played to its full potential even without Ronaldo in the side and the repertoire of skills on show suggests that the national football team are preparing well for the delayed European Championships in June 2021.
The 4-3-3 formation would work really well for a side packed with talented goal-scoring midfielders with Bruno Fernandes at the heart of the silky interplay.
The 25-year-old former Sporting Lisbon player was a class apart on the night at the Estadio do Dragao. Fernandes was like an engine in that crucial forward link-up role acting as a magnet to the ball and giving the Croatian defense and midfield a hard work out throughout the night.
Capped 20 times by Portugal, Bruno Fernandes is slowly becoming the creative pulse in the national side's set up. His link-up play, accurate passes, and immaculate vision are the very reasons why Manchester United signed him in January.
In one of his best performances for Portugal by a long way that kept the side unbeaten against Croatia in all six matches that the countries have played with each other, Fernandes had one assist, 5 chances created and seven duels won in addition to an 87% pass accuracy against a flat looking Croatian side.
On Saturday that same vision and technique helped the likes of Diogo Jota, Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix, and Joao Moutinho create chance after chance against a Croatian side that clearly lacked ideas to stop the creative midfielder. The visitors' physically strong midfield was no match to the creativity and pace of the home side.
The second half showed why Portugal look the sharpest amongst all the big teams in Europe and the likes of France and Germany would be particularly concerned given the teams are grouped together in Euro 2020. Incidentally, Portugal faces France in the Nations League in October also.
The home side's front four and their full-backs linked up brilliantly here, and they still have an in-form Cristiano Ronaldo to come back to the side and add further ruthlessness. On the evidence of the talent on show in Porto, it is clear that with or without the Juventus maestro Portugal's young guns are ready to challenge for international titles in the coming years.
The full-backs look intend to go forward with plenty of pace while Diogo Jota and Joao Felix look assured with their runs behind the opposition defense as they opened their international accounts with a goal each and certainly those won't be the last goals these youngsters would score in their national colours.
Portugal's veteran coach Fernando Santos has a great headache to select the best playing eleven from a growing pool of superstars in the upcoming matches.
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