July 10, 2016 is a date scorched into the memory of anyone who has ever admired Portugal and its football. As Eder ran toward the bench with his fists clenched, the worldwide Portuguese community went into uproar. This week is the anniversary of that hallowed night in Paris. Also, this week is exactly one year out until the World Cup semi-finals in Russia. While the hearts of many Seleção fans are hoping to be gathering together in a year’s time for another penultimate match, our minds know there is still plenty of work to be done. With a massive contest against Switzerland looming, nothing is certain. Still, it is hard to picture this talented side at home next summer and not competing for the world title. With Fernando Santos to most certainly still be at the helm, let us look at how we might line up in Russia. While there are still many kinks for Santos to work out in the next 11 months, I still expect him to employ a 4-1-3-2 type of formation.
GK: Rui Patrício
There are only two names I can say I am 100% certain will be on the team sheet. I am sure you can guess one of the names, but the other is Rui Patrício. The reliable goalkeeper will man the posts for Portugal in Russia. He may not be the best keeper in the world, but he just may be the most dependable. When Portugal needs someone behind their backline most, Patrício has never let them down.
Back 4: Cédric – Pepe – José Fonte – Guerreiro
Last week I would have said I was confident about three names that will be on the team sheet instead of two. Pepe would have been the third, but then he joined Besiktas. While I still think Santos will trot Pepe out to lead the back line, we fans just need to hope he is in good form. He is joining a league that is several steps below what he has been accustomed to for the last decade. He is perhaps the greatest center back in Portuguese history, and in my opinion the player of the tournament last summer, but his age and his latest decision to move to Turkey could be his demise. Portugal is going to have a big need for young center backs to develop, rapidly.
On the outsides however, Portugal are in good shape if healthy. Cédric and Nélson Semedo will compete for the right back spot, while Guerreiro is on his way to being one of the finest left fullbacks in the world. That is not a Seleção fan becoming overly excited, the Dortmund youngster improves weekly, and has been turning heads internationally for over a year.
Defensive Midfield: William Carvalho
One of the drawbacks of having such aging center backs is the need for a holding midfielder. While I would love to watch Santos unleash our attack in an all-out 4-3-3, I am not so sure it will work with our center backs. They rely on a strong defensive midfielder to cover ground in front of them. While I personally think (or my blue and white blood thinks) that Danilo is a better player, I do not see Santos making the switch any time soon. Expect Carvalho to keep his place behind three midfielders next summer.
Attacking Midfielders: Bernardo Silva – Adrien Silva – João Mario
If we learned anything from the Confederations Cup, it was that Bernardo Silva needs to start every game, period. Manchester City’s new acquisition is a constant engine in the middle of the field, and always a relentless threat. He is as dynamic a playmaker as Portugal has had since Rui Costa. He is that good.
Also in the midfield, I expect Santos to finally end his intrusive love affair with Andre Gomes and stick with Adrien Silva and João Mario. Adrien has always been solid and will provide needed experience in the middle of the park. João Mario’s vibrant runs through the midfield were sorely missed in the Confederations Cup, and the thought of him pairing up with Bernardo is appetizing.
Forwards: Ronaldo and André Silva
This is a massively important year for André Silva after his recent departure for Italy. His development is critical to the success of the Seleção. There has been a Paulta-shaped hole at the top of the Portuguese line since 2006, and we may finally have someone to fill it. The chemistry between Ronaldo and André Silva has proven to be strong, with the two combining for several goals already. The only thing wrong with André Silva, in Cristiano Ronaldo’s mind, is that he was not born a decade sooner.
Locks for the squad: Nani, Quaresma, Danilo. Eliseu, João Moutinho, Bruno Alves
Santos loves his veterans too much to drop any of these names from the squad. However, none of the above players, other than Danilo, should be starting any games in Russia. Nani and Quaresma can make a serious impact when they come off the bench, and João Moutinho can provide a calming influence late in matches; but if we are still starting them next summer then something has gone horribly wrong in the development of our youngsters. I also still expect to see Bruno Alves and Eliseu on the roster for defensive insurance purposes. But again, they should start only if injuries and the inevitable Pepe suspension force Santos’ hand.
Final players: Renato Sanches, Bruma, Gelson Martins, Nélson Semedo, Ruben Semedo.
I could talk about these five players for hours. By 2022, I expect, and hope, that all five are in the starting lineup. With Bruma and Gelson exploding down the sidelines, and Renato Sanches commanding the midfield, Portugal could be a force for a long time to come. The biggest question here is Ruben Semedo. Portugal is thirsting for young quality centerbacks, and Semedo represents their best hope. Like other fresh talents in his generation, he has left club football in Portugal to continue his development abroad, and has an important year upcoming. Renato Sanches has a big decision this summer, and where he plays his football this season will go a long way in determining if he will be in Russia. Meanwhile, Bruma has already made the switch to the Bundesliga to join last season’s runner-up, RB Liepzig. This was a fantastic move for him, and I expect this season to be the breakout one for Bruma. I would not be stunned if he nets double-digit goals for the Germans, and doing so would demand attention from Santos. In the end, I expect these five players at camp next June. Although, if everyone else is healthy, one will still need to be left out in order to slim the roster down to the required 23 players. Nevertheless, the growth of all five of these players is critical to the success of Portugal as we approach the next decade.
Backup goalkeepers: Jose Sá, Bruno Varela
It is easy to feel for Jose Sá. At times this summer, it looked as if he might take over the starting role at Porto. Iker Casillias did not move on however, and Sá looks destined to spend another season as the backup. Conversely, is Bruno Varela poised to take the reigns at Benfica? With Ederson moved on to Manchester City, Varela could be called upon more often this season. I expect Santos to bring both of these young, talented goalkeepers next summer.
Honorable mentions to be left home: Andre Gomes, João Cancelo, Ruben Neves, Pizzi, Luís Neto,
The biggest shock next summer will be the exclusion of Andre Gomes. For some reason, Luis Enrique gave Gomes a very long leash at Barcelona, giving him numerous chances and playing time. With a new incoming manager at Barcelona, I do not foresee Gomes cracking the starting lineup more than a handful of times at the Camp Nou. If that happens, and Gomes sees little match time this season, Santos surely will be forced to leave him out. Right?
João Cancelo had standout performances at the U-21 Euro Cup this summer, but he will unfortunately be pinched out of the squad by the emergence of Cédric and Nélson Semedo. Ruben Neves has just completed the debated, upsetting, and downright strange switch to Wolverhampton. A move that I consider to be all but the end of his Russia hopes next summer. Pizzi and Neto are both solid players, but certainly not among Santos’ favorites. I expect Santos to go younger in the midfield and defense in lieu of these two.
If this is indeed the squad that Santos brings to Russia, we could be in for another World Cup run. National team coaches often overlook the vital notion of mixing youth and experience, but this Portuguese squad may just have the ideal blend. To me, the above group would be an even stronger edition of the Portuguese team that lifted the trophy in France. This week is an exciting time to look back on the joy we felt a year ago as we celebrated Euro 2016, but also an ideal time to look forward to the prospering talent that Portugal can run with for years.