Preview: France vs Portugal
On Saturday evening, Fernando Santos’ new-look A Selecao das Quinas play France in Paris on his debut in an encounter that could be earmarked by the return of a number of former Portugal mainstays Tiago and Ricardo Carvalho.
The 60-year-old replaced Paulo Bento last month, despite being hit with an eight-match ban by FIFA for his actions while in charge of Greece at the World Cup in Brazil, sanctioned after verbally abusing match officals during a last-16 clash with Costa.
Restricted to only competitive fixtures, Santos will be able to sit in the Portuguese dugout of the Stade de France as Portugal looks towards their Euro 2016 qualifier in Denmark three days later.
A new era
The former Hellas gaffer has already stamped his authority on his country’s national side, exiling Bento’s faithful cast and crew in the form of Ricardo Costa, Meireles and Veloso in favour of a mix of youth and experience who were once overlooked by his much maligned predecessor.
In a list of 24 footballers, quickly reduced to 23 after ascertaining Coentrão’s dispensing after an injury cloud. The enforced absence of Portugal’s first choice left-back was not a surprise however, with Santos having selected back-ups for the position in the form of Eliseu and Antunes.
The Portuguese will be desperate to recover from their shock 1-0 home loss to Albania which Bento his job, and Valencia young-gun Andre Gomes sees the weekend’s encounter as a chance to put that defeat behind them. “We want to learn from past mistakes because only that way can we keep on improving,” he said. “Above all the group is stronger and more united. There is a great union towards achieving our goals.”
The Prodigal Son
In other news, Ricardo Carvalho has been reinstated into the Portuguese squad. In the summer of 2011, the veteran centre-back abandoned the Portuguese camp after a difference of opinion with Bento, leaving the then coach shocked. After the incident, the then coach voiced his disappointment and went on to never call-up the defensive lynchpin after 75 appearances and seven years of service in the red of Portugal.
Three years later, Ricardo Carvalho has returned with a spring in his step, biding his time after consistently impressive displays for new boys on the block Monaco alongside Joao Moutinho and more recently Under 21 up and comer Bernardo Silva. He is joined another unexpected inclusion Tiago, who retired after two games on the bench under Bento, playing the best football of his career having won the Spanish League Title and missing out on the Champion League title in extra time.
Tiago decided to retire from international football after the 2010 World Cup, refusing to go back on his decision despite several Bento attempts to persuade him otherwise.
“I had the chance at the end of last season to return, but I didn’t want people to think I was coming back just to play in the World Cup. That wasn’t in my thoughts,” said the Atletico stalwart at a press conference in Obidos. “Fernando Santos phoned me and said that for him age was not an issue, that he was counting on all the players available and as I feel in good shape I said I would love to return.”
Looking towards 2016
Didier Deschamps’ France come into the tie as strong favourites having not lost to the Portuguese in nearly forty years. Les Bleus secured a draw away from home against Serbia and a narrow 1-0 win over Spain in Paris in their last two friendly outings in preparation for Euro 2016.
Karim Benzema, whose spot on the Real Madrid team sheet has been hotly contested by loanee Javier Hernandez, will not find minutes any easier in Paris as Loic Remy, and revelation Andre-Pierre Gignac breathe down his neck.
The latter is currently on an eight-game scoring streak for Marseille. The 28-year-old striker returns to the national team set-up for the first time since September of last year has been met by comparisons to Portuguese Ball d’Or holder Cristiano Ronaldo, rubbishing the claims: “Oh, be serious… Cristiano Ronaldo is the best players in the world with Messi. He has more than one goal per game on average. What to say? I want to be prolific, but there is no comparison really.”
Deschamps’ men were dealt a blow on Thursday with the new that defender Laurent Koscielny had withdrawn from the team camp due to an Achilles problem, replaced by Mapou Yana-Mbiwa.
A historically one-sided affair
France comes into the tie with mixed results in their last few fixtures as they try to establish a winning formula ahead of their hosting of the European Championships. Indifferent form and injuries has left a cloud over the French starting eleven but, regardless, Deschamps’ squad is brimming with talent and will not take this tie lightly against esteemed, albeit out-of-sorts, opposition in the form of Portugal.
Santos’ Portugal are currently entering a transitional period earmarked by change in coaching staff, playing personnel and potentially playing philosophy. A side no longer dogged by ghosts of coaches’ past, A Seleção das Quinas is comprised of a group of 23 footballers vying for a spot on the team sheet; and that bodes well. The last time such change occurred under the Bento era, the Portuguese followed up with a flurry of impressive victories, including the infamous 4-0 win over their Iberian neighbours Spain.
This is the 23rd encounter between Portugal and France, with the Seleção’s last win in 1975. After eight straight losses to Les Tricolores, two of those coming in extra-time in the semi-finals of Euro 1984 and 2000, the Portuguese will look to break their duck in front of a strong support in the French capital.
With Portuguese morale at an all-time high in vying for a change of fortunes, PortugalFutbol believes Santos will break their duck of defeats, but not their winless streak.