Santos gifts Spain Portugal’s Nations League finals slot

Portugal coach Fernando Santos
Portugal coach Fernando Santos

Today, Portugal, playing at home against arch-rivals Spain, and needing only a draw to progress to the UEFA Nations League semifinals, lost 0-1 and were eliminated by a brilliantly strategized Spanish rope-a-dope. If ever the Portuguese needed a World Cup cold shower wake-up call, they got it.

In a game you could have called after the first fifteen minutes, Spanish coach, Luis Enrique, played possession-possum starting a cadre of his veterans with the clear intention of tiring the Portuguese first string for 60 minutes. Spain rarely got an offensive play in the entire first half, preferring to amass keep-away minutes on the defensive odometers of their opponents. Somehow, Portuguese coach Fernando Santos felt this was to his liking as he had obviously told his charges to lay back, absorb the expected Spanish pressure to score, and then counter. That pressure never came, but the Portuguese were made to chase the Spaniards throughout the pitch and Santos never reacted.

Then, at the 60-minute mark, Enrique brought in 20-year-old winger Nico Williams, 19-year-old right winger Yeremy Pino, and central midfield sensation 18-year-old Gavi. The trio ran circles around the tiring Portuguese midfield and wreaked havoc on the wings. The speed, skill, and energy of the substitutes soon overwhelmed the ragged Portuguese defense and engineered play after dangerous play for thirty consecutive minutes during which Portugal barely got an offensive play in. Santos seemed oblivious to what was happening.

The Portuguese coach, who has never been particularly inclined toward offense even when presented with a team with some of the best offensive players on the planet, kept telling his team to lay in wait. Unbelievably Santos never reacted to his team’s dire straits unfolding before his eyes. Instead of dominating the match from the get-go with his team’s superior offensive weapons and putting the match’s conclusion out of doubt and the Spaniards’ reach, he instead chose to have them all play defense.

Not only was Santos wrong about his original game concept, and wrong in not realizing that what was occurring before him was not at all what his strategy had intended to counter, and wrong in not having a plan B, but he was also too late to figure out what was needed to respond to what his opponent was doing. Incredibly, when the Portuguese coach finally made his substitutions, at the 78- and 79-minute marks, 18-19 minutes after Enrique made his, the exchanges Santos chose were not ones that restored his depleted defense.  Instead, the three subs who came in were offensive midfielder Vitinha, substituting for striker Diogo Jota, striker Rafael Leao, substituting for defensive midfielder William Carvalho, and striker Joao Felix coming in for midfielder Ruben Neves. Now he had an offensive-heavy team, a depleted defense that was being pummeled, and no connecting midfield to help either defense or offense in their jobs.

Though Portugal had their chances to score in both halves and some were harder to miss than to put in the net (watch Ronaldo hesitate while one-on-one with Unai Simon only to have a trailing defender take the ball away) or see the number of shots that came close-Bruno Fernandes-or were saved by Simon-Diogo Jota) the bottom line is they should have had twice as many chances and then perhaps a score might have ensued.

When the Spanish goal finally came (ten minutes after the Portuguese substitutes came in), and it was always going to be Spain scoring, it was a Dani Carvajal cross from the right side of the box to Williams who outran and outjumped his defender on the left wing, to head the ball across goal to that notoriously slow-paced Alvaro Morata who had nevertheless beaten all defenders to produce a simple smash from inside the goal box. The goal was empty because Portuguese keeper Diogo Costa had left it vacant in pursuit of a ball he clearly saw his defender was going to lose. Williams outsmarted Costa by heading away from goal and out of the now-out-of-position keeper’s reach toward his incredibly wide-open striker teammate. Spain checkmate!

In the end, just as in their 4-2 loss to Germany in Euro 2020, the Portuguese players had little say in the final result, it was Santos who lost the match for Portugal and gifted Enrique a win that should have never been.

Photo: Fernando Santos Shutterstock ID: 1536862706, by viewimage


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