The October international break welcomed a return to action for the Seleção with 2 massive games against Luxembourg and Ukraine, it was a mixed few days for Fernando Santos’ men in their search for European Championship qualification and the chance to defend their crown.
Victory in Lisboa
First off came the visit of Luxembourg to Lisbon. The minnows travelled to the Estádio José Alvalade and were soundly beaten 3-0 by a Portugal side who didn’t really have to get out of first gear. Goals from Bernardo Silva, Gonçalo Guedes and a stunning chip from Cristiano Ronaldo were enough to see Portugal over the line.
The match could have been a potential banana skin so it was good to see the Seleção deal with it in a professional and proficient manner. Doing what they had to do without overexerting themselves. All of the talk prior to this international break was that the Luxembourg match wold be the ‘foregone conclusion’, with most Portuguese eyes already fixed on the trip to Kiev, Ukraine.
Less than a week later, the trip to Kiev to face Ukraine. The Group B leaders came into this match knowing that a point would be sufficient in sealing their qualification and like Portugal, they came into this clash unbeaten. After just 5 minutes, Ukraine delivered a hammer blow, taking the lead through Yaremchuk after an initial effort was pushed into his path by Rui Patrício. A second came through Andriy Yarmolenko who was on hand to punish some rather suspect Portuguese defending.
Portugal throughout had no rhythm, no creativity and lacked conviction both with and without the ball in both halves of the match. The absence of William Carvalho was sorely felt and Fernando Santos will be thankful for his return (barring a new injury) for the last two group matches in November. The decision to shake up the midfield, bringing in João Mario and dropping Bruno Fernandes to the bench was a decision that left many perplexed, Mario himself didn’t have a bad game but why change a winning formula?
In the 71st minute, Portugal were handed an extremely contentious lifeline by referee Anthony Taylor. A penalty was awarded after a long-range Bruma effort struck Stepanenko’s arm. A second yellow card followed for the Ukrainian man and Cristiano Ronaldo dispatched the penalty with archetypal composure to claim his 700th career goal. An absolutely extraordinary feat for an extraordinary player. Portugal had chances to equalise as the game went on, hitting the woodwork through both Danilo and Pepe but Portugal ultimately failed to convert. The game ended 2-1 to the hosts.
Ukraine overall were the better side, tactically organized without the ball, retaining a solid shape and frustrating Portugal into sideways passing and speculative efforts. Fernando Santos will know that looking forward to the future, that he must harness the creative talent at his disposal and find a way to break down sides that play, like Ukraine did, with 9 or 10 men behind the ball.
So, where does this international break leave Portugal?
Well, qualification is still in the hands of the Portuguese. 2 victories from the last 2 games against Lithuania and Luxembourg will see Portugal qualify on 17 points. It’s never ideal going into a draw for a major tournament as group runner up but the most important thing is that Portugal are there.
It’s not the greatest result in the world, but it also isn’t the end of the world. The Ukraine match marked the first defeat for Portugal since they were eliminated by Uruguay in Sochi in the World Cup. Fernando Santos simply has to get it right in the last 2 games, games which Portugal should in essence, be winning. Incredibly frustrating that Portugal have to do it this way with the increased pressure on their shoulders, but as fans of the team we know, the Seleção never do it the easy way.