Fernando Santos framed Portugal’s Euro 2020 exit as a tale of bad luck and missed chances but the failure to extract the best from a wealth of attacking talents was ultimately what cost his team dear.
Belgium were left hanging on to their 1-0 win in Seville, decided by Thorgan Hazard’s swerving strike at the end of the first half which earns them a quarter-final meeting with Italy in Munich on Friday.
They might have scored a second with more precision on the break and instead a slender advantage was always going to give way to a Portugal onslaught at the end of breathless tie in the last 16.
“I think it’s an unfair result but they scored and we didn’t,” said Santos. “Their goal was a shot from nothing, from outside the box. We can’t control everything.”
But while the statistics would show Portugal had 24 shots, six of them on target, the flow of the match had Belgium as the more ambitious team until they had to defend and their opponents grew increasingly desperate.
Portugal started with just over 200 million euros ($238 million) worth of talent in their front three, with Cristiano Ronaldo flanked by Liverpool’s Diogo Jota and Bernardo Silva of Manchester City.
When the game was getting away from them, another trio worth another 200 million euros entered, Bruno Fernandes, Joao Felix and Andre Silva coming on for Jota, Bernardo Silva and Joao Moutinho.
France’s Kylian Mbappe, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann might be the sharpest starting trident but even the world champions cannot match Portugal’s depth of attacking options.
And yet there was a lack of fluidity about them at La Cartuja as players that sparkle for their clubs looked weighed down by a need to put defensive shape and organisation first.
There are mitigating circumstances, with Fernandes clearly fatigued in this tournament as his appearances for the season ticked past 70 in the group stage.
– ‘No issue with Ronaldo’ –
Felix has been drifting for months and needs rejuvenating after watching most of Atletico Madrid’s La Liga success from the sidelines before being dropped by Portugal too.
And they were up against an experienced Belgian back line, whose best days might be behind them but who still delivered a throwback demonstration of organised, committed defence under pressure.
Facing Belgium, the team ranked number one in the world rankings for the last three years, after encountering Germany and France in their group, was about as tough a draw as could be imagined.
“Toby Alderweireld, Jan Vertonghen, Thomas Vermaelen, they are the masters,” said Roberto Martinez. “The talent they have makes defending an art.”
Yet there was reason to expect more from Portugal, who prioritised suppression for most of the first half, a tactic that proved successful in France five years ago but jarred when adopted by this current crop.
When the push came late on, it felt frantic rather than planned, players thrown on off the bench and balls lofted towards the area in hope more than expectation.
At one point, Felix was playing right wing-back and Fernandes in defensive midfield.
If the plan was to service Ronaldo, it worked to some extent, after the 36-year-old scored five goals – his best ever Euro tally – but the sacrifices made by those around him come at a cost.
At the final whistle, Ronaldo hurled his captain’s armband to the ground, Portugal’s early exit now added to his disappointment with Juventus last season in both the Champions League and Serie A.
“He scored five goals in the tournament and OK, he didn’t score today but he was a true captain in every sense of the word,” said Santos. “He tried to turn the game around. There is no issue with Ronaldo.”
When Ronaldo eventually brings his immense international career to an end, a more progressive coach than Santos might compensate the loss by shifting the balance and approach.
For now, Portugal turn to next year’s World Cup in Qatar, needing to find a way to illuminate not just Ronaldo but those coming up behind him.