Home advantage, one of Europes hottest prospects in Joao Felix and “10 years of emerging talent” – things are looking good for Portugals Nations League bid.
The reigning European champions get the inaugural tournament finals under way on Wednesday against Switzerland at Portos Estadio do Dragao, before the Netherlands face England in Guimaraes in the other semi-final on Thursday.
BBC Sport spoke to former Swansea boss Carlos Carvalhal and ex-Fulham midfielder Luis Boa Morte about their countrys “healthy” selection headache, the emergence of Felix and why the team are so much more than Cristiano Ronaldo.
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Portugal, without Ronaldo in their team, qualified for the finals by topping a group that contained Italy and Poland.
They head into this game in Oporto having lost only one of their last 15 games but they remain a team lacking in style and they have often been found wanting against supposedly weaker nations – just take a look at how they began their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign in March, with home draws against Ukraine and Serbia. They arrive here having drawn their last four.
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The 34-year-old Juventus forward missed six internationals after Portugal were knocked out in the World Cup last 16, before returning for the start of their Euro 2020 qualifying campaign in March.
In Xherdan Shaqiri they have a trump card capable of causing any opponent problems. Hes long been looked to as the man to create and score goals, which have often been in short supply, but the during the group phase, the Swiss found other attacking options as they rammed home 14 goals – the most of any team in the top tier of the competition.
This will be the first time Portugal have hosted a senior tournament since a side containing a 19-year-old Ronaldo lost to Greece in the Euro 2004 final.
Particularly eyecatching in terms of his match is the fact that German Felix Brych is the referee as hes had a real penchant for awarding penalties this season – hes pointed to the spot 14 times in his 34 matches, awarding one every 2.43 games. To put that into some sort of context, the Bundesliga as a whole saw one every 3.36 matches.
They won their first ever major trophy at Euro 2016 but manager Fernando Santos has retained just nine players from that team including veterans Pepe, Joao Moutinho and Ronaldo, who have all played over 100 games for their country.
Nani, Ricardo Quaresma and Joao Mario were among those dropped by Santos, who has picked a mixture of youth and experience for their Nations League title bid with three uncapped players.
Other highly rated 22-year-olds are Benfica centre-back Ruben Dias and Valencia forward Goncalo Guedes, while Sporting Lisbons Bruno Fernandes and fellow midfielder Bernardo Silva of Manchester City – who Carvalhal says is “one of the best players in the world at this moment” – are only 24.
“We know that one day Ronaldo will finish, but we have so much talent in this moment with a new generation of Portuguese players,” says ex-Sheffield Wednesday boss Carvalhal. “Around Ronaldo will be more talent than in the past, players to support him. Individual-wise Portugal is better in this moment.
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“We know Silva is the player that can follow Ronaldo and be the next big star of the team. In the next few years will appear Felix, who is a very talented player.
There are pairs of words that can strike a terrible chill into even the hardest hearts of men. Lunchtime meeting. Reformed chicken. Christmas single. But the most horrible, the most despair-inducingly awful combination of all is beyond debate: International friendly. Weve all sat, dull-eyed, semi-conscious, virtually flatlining through unspeakable nil-nil draws against faraway equatorial republics where the highlight has been the ninth substitution, a journeyman from Blackburn Rovers coming on in the 75th minute for his one and only England cap.
He added: “We had a problem two years ago where we had a good goalkeeper, full-backs, midfielders and attackers, but we didnt have a centre-back. Then this season we had Dias and Ferro [who was not called up] – two centre-backs for the future.
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“These kind of things make us believe we have a very good national team for the next 10 years. We are probably feeling the same way as England fans with their young squad and the Netherlands is the same.
Of course, the competitions success in England has been helped by the fact that the national team has qualified for the finals. Doubtless wed all be scoffing at it as a glorified international Checkatrade Trophy if we were watching from the sidelines. But were still there and for a nation not exactly drowning in silverware in the last 50-odd years, well take whatever glory we can get, thanks very much.
How Santos selects a starting XI and finds the right balance for his side will be one of the biggest question marks over this team.
So when the Nations League was born last year, it turned out to be a hugely welcome addition to the international calendar (once wed all worked out what the hell it was). Uefa had – file this under sentences you never expected to read – played a blinder. Suddenly, international friendlies were replaced by matches that actually meant something. That were actually worth watching.
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Boa Morte, who won 28 caps, says: “We hope the manager keeps having these healthy headaches, which means we have a lot of talent coming through.
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“We expect an attacking line-up as we are playing at home and have the players to play attacking football.”
All eyes will be on Cristiano Ronaldo, making his first appearance in the competition but coach Fernando Santos revealed he is also considering handing a debut to Benfica whizzkid Joao Felix, a £120m transfer target of Manchester United, City and Real Madrid.
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Carvalhal, appointed as Rio Ave boss last week, says the challenge for Santos will be “to connect all these pieces with different characteristics, players from the past with these new stars and players playing in different parts of the world”.
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The other question is whether Santos will “take the risk” and start Ronaldo and Felix together for the first time.
Ronaldo finished the season with 28 goals, his lowest tally for 10 years, but Boa Morte insists he is “still the main man”.
Felix, who made his senior debut in August for Benfica, scored 20 goals and registered 11 assists in all competitions last season. He has been linked with a move to the Premier League and has a 120m euros release clause.
He described his first training session with five-time Ballon dOr winner Ronaldo as “like being in career mode on PlayStation – he looked like a video game character”.
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Carvalhal continued: “Felix is the emerging star in Portuguese football. Why is he so special? Hes a mix between a nine and a 10, he plays like a second striker.
“We always want to play with Ronaldo. It is not just about the goals he scores, but the confidence and motivation he gives to the team and fans. We want to feel him on the pitch.”
He added: “I believe they can play together but they do not yet have a connection, so lets see if they are compatible. Sometimes these kind of things need time to integrate in training.”
Carvalhal says Ronaldo is often allowed a free role for Portugal, playing behind a “reference” in attack, a role filled recently by Sevilla striker Andre Silva, who is out injured.
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But Felix could play in the number 10 role, a position he has shone at for Benfica, in support of Ronaldo.
“If he plays with Felix it will be different,” says Carvalhal. “We could see them both play up front or Ronaldo could play as a fixed attacker with Felix behind him.
“We won Euro 2016, we are playing at home and the support will be massive. We have a generation of players with lots of talent,” he added.
Raheem Sterling believes winning the Nations League with England could be the key to success in future tournaments.
England take on the Netherlands in the semi-final of the tournament on Thursday, live on Sky Sports Football, hoping to win their first competitive trophy since the 1966 World Cup.
Gareth Southgates men also have the chance to become the first side to win the Nations League, and Sterling is determined to follow a trophy-laden season with Manchester City by securing silverware with his country.