Due to the current format of UEFA World Cup Qualifying, the odds are stacked in favor of the high-profile sides that pepper the continent. Winning a qualifying group is never a sure thing, but countries like Germany, Spain, France, and Belgium are almost always favored to walk through their respective groups in order to secure automatic qualification, rather than leaving things up to the two-legged playoff that awaits whoever finishes second in a group. Portugal should be in that tier of elite countries, but after Sunday’s last-minute 2-1 loss to Serbia in Lisbon, Cristiano Ronaldo and co. will be headed back to the playoffs to fight for their World Cup lives.
Portugal’s Group A draw was more than fair to the 8th-ranked team in the FIFA rankings. Though Ireland is a decent team, there was no doubt that Portugal was the best team in the group and, at worst, nearly guaranteed of a second-place finish over the likes of Luxembourg and Azerbaijan. Serbia is no slouch, having qualified to the 2018 World Cup, but the Serbs also failed to qualify for the 2020 Euro, so they should not have been this much of a roadblock for Portugal. The cracks started to show back in March, though, as Serbia overcame a Diogo Jota brace to snatch a 2-2 draw in Belgrade. A 0-0 draw for Portugal against Ireland last Thursday set up the final scenario: a Serbia win, and it would win the group. Any other result would give it to Portugal.
A team as loaded as Portugal should have been able to turn those odds into a favorable result, particularly at home, but this specific side struggles more than any team with this amount of talent should. Though his off-the-field sexual assault case may rightfully distract from his play, Ronaldo still tends to bring it in a Portuguese jersey. He’s got more help than in years past, too; starting on Sunday in attack were Bernardo Silva and Jota, two key players for Premier League title contenders. Portugal also has Bruno Fernandes, Ruben Dias, João Cancelo, Nuno Mendes—these are not scrubs. But under manager Fernando Santos, the end result is much less than the sum of its parts.
Why, for example, did Santos start three non-attacking midfielders in a home game against a lesser team, in a game where even a draw would be enough to clinch first place via goal difference? Sure, Renato Sanches scored the opening goal just two minutes in, but his inclusion is nowhere as eyebrow raising as the choice to trudge out a washed João Moutinho over Fernandes. More pressingly, why is a team with so much attacking talent, and with two wingbacks, playing so defensively and yet also so incompetently in defense?
One need only look at Aleksandar Mitrović’s game-winner in the 90th minute to understand the failings of Portugal’s coaching:
Though he is Serbia’s highest-ever goalscorer, Mitrović in 2021 is no one’s idea of a dynamic striker. His value comes from his size and heading ability, which would seem to force any opponent to mark, or even double-mark, him in the box, particularly when crossing magician Dušan Tadić has the ball in the attacking third. And yet! With all of that defensive personnel on the field, somehow Portugal did not get a body anywhere near the big Serbian, who guided a standing header past Rui Patrício and sent his country, deliriously, into the World Cup.
Santos has been the wrong man to lead this Portugal team for years. Even before getting his hands on this current batch of talented midfielders and defenders, he always set Portugal up to need Ronaldo’s magic in order to win. It’s worked at times, but he’s coasted on a brutal and aesthetically unpleasant run to the 2016 Euro title for the last half-decade.
At this summer’s Euros, Portugal made it out of a group of death by virtue of a third-place tiebreaker, but digging into the actual games shows a team just barely surviving. It took two Ronaldo penalties against France in the group closer to even win the opportunity to get shut down by Belgium in the round of 16. Even its one resounding win, a 3-0 victory over Hungary, came after 84 minutes of dreadful play; against a better team, or one more prepared to weather a late and desperate onslaught, perhaps that win turns into a draw.
The players are to blame somewhat here; even with horrible coaching, Portugal probably had 10 of the best 11 players on the field—and that’s only if you rate Tadić as highly as I do—and should have, at the very least, locked down a draw. But as Ronaldo has discovered at his once-and-present club, Manchester United, no amount of talent can truly overcome bad coaching. This is not a team with the pieces to ride defensive solidity to results, despite what Santos appears to think. Ronaldo, never one to hide his emotions in tough moments on the field, exploded on his manager after Sunday’s loss, and for once, it’s hard to not agree with him:
Santos should have been gone after the 2018 World Cup, where a strong Portugal side wilted against Uruguay in the round of 16, and he really should have been gone after the Euros. Instead, he has guided Portugal exactly where it hoped to not be again: headed to a second-place playoff, hoping to put in a two-leg shift that allows them to travel to Qatar for the World Cup.
It’s too late to switch anything before that playoff, but even a successful qualification shouldn’t mask the very real issues plaguing this talented but inconsistent side. If Santos ends up coaching at the World Cup next winter, Portugal’s soccer association will have no one to blame but itself for what will likely be yet another early exit from a major international tournament. Sunday’s embarrassing loss to Serbia didn’t come out of nowhere. The dam is breaking, and Santos isn’t the one who should be trusted to plug the holes.