Following the recent news that Premier League clubs will not be obliged to let Portuguese stars represent A Seleção during the international break in March, Aaron Barton looks at what Fernando Santos’ squad could look like for the World Cup Qualifiers v Azerbaijan, Serbia and Luxembourg.
Why might clubs not allow their Portuguese players to leave?
The issue is due to COVID-19, FIFA has recently extended a rule over player release. The usual FIFA rule is that clubs have to allow their players to leave for international duty, however, an exemption was recently added. One of the reasons clubs can justify not releasing their players for international duty is if the player in question faces mandatory quarantine when they return. This affects Portugal because the UK has stated that any player returning from South America and Portugal will have to quarantine in a hotel for 10 days, footballers are not exempt.
Who could miss out?
If we look at the most recent Portugal squad from November’s UEFA Nations League games, we can see just how important those players plying their trade in England are to A Seleção.
Starting XI and Subs v France (Players in Premier League are in bold)
Right Back Trouble
The most apparent position of weakness should the Premier League clubs decide to disallow their players from travelling, is right-back.
The Portugal squad is truly blessed with incredible depth in that position in the form of João Cancelo, Nélson Semedo, Ricardo Pereira and Cédic Soares, the problem? They all play in England.
The alternatives? Fernando Santos will undoubtedly have to call upon a previously uncapped player. Thierry Correia could well be an option. Correia plays frequently for the Portugal U21’s, having recently displaced Diogo Dalot for the starting berth. He has also racked up 14 appearances for Valencia in La Liga, including starts in Valencia’s last five games in the league. Diogo Dalot has had more frequent game time during his loan spell at AC Milan, where he has shared his time between playing right and left-back. He is uncapped at senior international level but could be an option for Fernando Santos. He has areas to improve, particularly defensively but is still only 21-years-old and will continue to develop the more he plays.
In terms of more experienced players, Ricardo Esgaio has been a huge part of Braga’s success so far this season. The 27-year-old has started all 17 Liga matches for his side, captaining them on three occasions. He is uncapped at senior level but is a lot more experienced than the other options. The only possible issue is that he, especially recently, has become more accustomed to playing as a right-wing back as opposed to a traditional RB. However, this shouldn’t be too much of an issue (should he be called up), due to his experience of playing both positions.
Goalkeeper and Central Defence
Whilst being without Rui Patrício is obviously a disadvantage, it’s not at the top of Santos’ worry list. In his previous squad, he took Anthony Lopes (Lyon) and Rui Silva (Granada), both of these goalkeepers have been performing at a high level in their respective leagues. Rui Silva especially is currently enjoying the best form of his career. Assuming Rui Silva/Anthony Lopes make the squad and start, Santos can either go with a third experienced keeper in the form of José Sá or dip into the U21’s for someone like Diogo Costa, whoever the third goalkeeper is it doesn’t make much difference given that they’re unlikely to feature.
Rúben Dias is a huge blow for Fernando Santos, he has firmly established himself as Pepe’s partner at the heart of Portugal’s defence. (The only reason Pepe wasn’t included in the previous squad was due to injury). José Fonte has been incredible for Lille this season despite his age, the 37-year-old Lille captain is currently top of Ligue 1 and also made the last Portugal squad so, barring injury, you’d expect him to make this squad. Santos has Domingos Duarte, Rúben Semedo, José Fonte, Pepe and then his pick of young talent in the likes of David Carmo and Diogo Leite to choose from, so whilst Dias’ absence will be felt, it’s not as if Portugal are without any viable options.
João Moutinho, Rúben Neves and Bruno Fernandes all made the previous Portugal squad and their absence will definitely be felt.
Sporting’s Pedro Pote Gonçalves was expected to make the squad regardless, the possible Premier League travel ban only boosts his case for a call-up. The 22-year-old Sporting man has been a revelation this season, who has drawn obvious comparisons to Bruno Fernandes from the media. 14 goals and two assists in 15 games from midfield is an incredible return and given that Santos likes to pick players based on merit, we should be seeing him in the squad.
Another Sporting man who could get a chance, particularly in the absence of Rúben Neves, is João Palhinha. The 25-year-old has had to be incredibly patient in waiting for his chance at Sporting, going out on loan to Moreirense, Belenenses and Braga before becoming an integral part of Sporting’s squad, which he now unquestionably is. Filipe Melo on last week’s episode of The Portuguese Football Show said that he thinks Palhinha is “Sporting’s most important player, even above Pedro Gonçalves” and it clear to see why. The midfielder is important for Sporting both with the ball and also without it and he has been instrumental in their excellent start to the season. He is previously uncapped but at 25 he has a decent amount of experience.
This is perhaps the outfield area least affected by the travel restrictions. If we are to go off the previous Portugal squad, Santos would be without Diogo Jota, Pedro Neto and Bernardo Silva. Three excellent players in their own right and players such as Neto and Jota are great options to have particularly off the bench. Santos does however still have Cristiano Ronaldo, João Félix, Paulinho and Trincão available from the previous squad, as well as Rafael Leão and André Silva to pick both of whom are in wonderful form for their respective clubs. Leão brings versatility in that he can play through the middle as well as out wide where he likes to be direct, running at the full-back and creating space for other forwards. Silva is a more conventional number 9 and has been on fire in the Bundesliga, recently overtaking Erling Håland in the scorer’s charts and with only Robert Lewandowski in front of him.
As we mentioned at the start, it is not confirmed what players will be allowed to go, the ban means that it is up to the club’s discretion regarding who can travel and who can’t. Keep updated on Próxima Jornada for news on the story as it develops.