Lisbon (AFP) – With the rare experience of having coached all of Portugal’s big three Porto, Benfica and Sporting Lisbon, Fernando Santos has returned from exile in Greece to try and win the country’s first international tournament at Euro 2016.
Even a looming touchline ban, reduced from eight games to two on appeal, from an outburst at officials as Greece bowed out the 2014 World Cup on penalties to Costa Rica did not dissuade the Portuguese Football Federation from hiring the 61-year-old.
That decision looks more than justified as Santos has delivered seven wins from the seven competitive games he has overseen since replacing Paulo Bento after Portugal lost their first European Championship qualifier at home to Albania.
Santos’s principal task, like that of his predecessors Bento, Carlos Queiroz and Luis Felipe Scolari before, is to get the best out of three-time world player of the year Cristiano Ronaldo on the international stage.
Ronaldo has already distinguished himself as his country’s leading goalscorer of all time. Yet, he has yet to leave his mark on a major international tournament in the way that has seen him score over 500 goals at club level for Real Madrid and Manchester United.
At 31 and with a soft draw which sees Portugal face Austria, Hungary and tournament debutants Iceland in Group F, Ronaldo is unlikely to get a better chance to shine on the international stage.
And Santos believes the key is to take some of the load off Ronaldo by building the team around him.
“I am looking for a solution to strengthen Cristiano with the characteristics of my players,” said Santos.
“You cannot either ask Cristiano to play as a winger in defence because, he makes such an effort attacking, being the best player in the world, the most prolific goal scorer, he cannot behave like a defender.”
By contrast, Santos’ feats in guiding a Greece team short on the individual talent that will be available to him in France to the knockout rounds at Euro 2012 and the 2014 World Cup were arguably greater than what he previously achieved in a long career as a club coach.
On top of Ronaldo, Portugal boast a burgeoning array of talented midfielders which helped them reach the final of the under-21 European Championship last summer.
William Carvalho of Sporting Lisbon was one of those who earned rave reviews for their performances after a famous 5-0 thrashing of Germany in the semi-finals of that tournament.
Moreover, much is expected of Bayern Munich’s new 35 million-euro ($39.6m) purchase Renato Sanches despite the 18-year-old only having played four times for his country.
The key to Portugal’s success is therefore likely to be whether Santos can impose the same organisation and defensive structure that carried his Greece side to the latter stages.
Portugal’s ageing backline looks like a potential area of weakness. Real Madrid’s Pepe and Fenerbahce’s Bruno Alves are both well into their thirties. And they will be backed-up by 38-year-old veteran Ricardo Carvalho.
However, if they can stand firm, Santos will have delivered the platform to give Ronaldo the chance to round off a spectacular career with the international trophy that has so far escaped him.
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