Euro 2021: Is it too late for Ronaldo and Portugal to defend their title?

The European and Nations League champions look ahead to 2021

Current holders of the European Championship, Portugal, wouldn’t have been best pleased when they found out they were sharing a group at the 2020 tournament with the two most recent world champions in France and Germany.

They were already outsiders to defend their title at Euro 2020 - priced at 14/1 by Paddy Power, - but when you have Cristiano Ronaldo in your team, you always have a chance. This was the case in 2016 when they won the tournament. Nobody expected them to do all that well. The consensus was that bar Ronaldo, Portugal had a squad full of average players.

The group stages confirmed those beliefs when Portugal failed to win a single game out of the three. It was Ronaldo’s heroics in the final group stage game, a 3-3 draw against Hungary, that spared the side their blushes and secured their progression as one of the best third-placed teams; that's right, they couldn't even progress automatically.

Again though, it was Ronaldo's leadership and contributions which led them to the trophy. Whilst he was limited to 25 minutes of game time in the final due to an injury - the win is widely attributed to Ronaldo’s leadership on the touchline. Portugal’s captain and greatest ever talent has proven is a threat from anywhere, even when he isn’t on the pitch, so being 36 at Euro 2021, might not be such a worry.

However, at this age, will 2021 be a little too late for Ronaldo and his nation when the likes of England and France's youngsters are continuing to blossom? Here, we delve into the evidence for and against Portugal’s chances to defend their Euro 2016 title at Euro 2021.

A Portugal Squad Past Its Best at 2021?

The side that won the 2016 tournament wasn’t exactly full of superstars, like France's World Cup squad of 2018. What it was, however, was a group of players that complimented each other and worked well as a unit. There were key members throughout the team who gelled everything together, such as Pepe's solidity at the back, whilst Luis Nani and Ricardo Quaresma helped Ronaldo in attack, just as Joao Moutinho controlled play in the middle of the park.

Pepe, arguably as important in defence as Ronaldo is in attack, at 37 years old only, had a small chance of featuring at Euro 2020. Now, seeing him appear in 2020 looks incredibly unlikely. His two main partners at centre-back that year, Ricardo Carvalho and Bruno Alves, have both ended their International playing days.

The former Real Madrid star's only other defensive partner that year, Jose Fonte, will also be 37 at Euro 2021 and also looks very unlikely to feature. And today, the current crop of defenders isn't quite as impressive as the players mentioned above, and Portugal's defensive stability looks questionable for 2021.

The midfield unit from the 2016 triumph also looks slightly worse for wear than it did four years ago. Joao Moutinho is playing well in the Premier League with Wolverhampton Wanderers, but he is not the powerhouse he once was. In 2016 he was accompanied by two very promising young midfielders in William Carvalho and Renato Sanches, the latter even being given the Best Young Player award.

Unfortunately, both players haven't quite hit the heights expected ever since then. Both linked with big-money moves to Europe's best clubs throughout their careers the two midfielders have failed to live up to expectations. Carvalho, now 27, remained at his boyhood side Sporting Lisbon until a move to Spanish side Real Betis in the summer of 2018, not quite the same as the transfers once envisaged. Renato Sanches, on the other hand, is still only 22, so there is time for him yet.

Although, Portuguese fans will certainly be satisfied with the fact that they have Bruno Fernandes as one of Europe's best at just 25, whilst Ruben Neves was just a 19-year-old back then. The two may well form a sensational partnership in the centre of the pitch, which could match any nation out there.

Finally, Cristiano Ronaldo’s two right-hand men, Nani and Ricardo Quaresma, are both past their best. At their peak, they were two of the most feared and skilful wingers in Europe but are now enjoying the twilights of their careers. Nani is in Orlando and Quaresma plays with Turkish side Kasimpasa. Both players still possess tremendous skill but don't quite boast the superhuman fitness of Ronaldo. It looks like the Juventus star will have to go at it alone as the only veteran of the squad, which may be just a little too much to ask even for one of the greats.

Sure, things might be looking a little bleak for Portugal in 20201. This year may have been the final chance for fans to see their golden era and win a third consecutive European major trophy. However, with so many great Portuguese stars appearing in the past season, a year-long delay is perhaps just what Portugal needed to boost their chances, regardless of Ronaldo's ageing excellence.

For starters, you have centre-forward, Joao Felix. He moved from Benfica to Atletico Madrid in the summer of 2019 for a fee of approximately £113 million - an unprecedented fee for a 19-year-old. Felix has shown glimpses of his talent in his first season in La Liga, but four goals and an assist in 20 league appearances aren't quite reflective of the price tag.

Another year of experience will do the 20-year-old a world of good and if he lives up to his market value, he could even upstage Ronaldo in 2021, possibly showing he has what it takes to take the reigns from the man 16 years his senior.

The previously mentioned, Moutinho, is getting older, granted, but perhaps even more impressive than him is his Wolves midfield partner and protégée, Neves. The holding midfielder has been silently impressing in England since he joined Wolves in the Championship back in 2017.

Neves' exceptional range of passing, ability to create chances from nothing, and thunderous have earned him plenty of plaudits with many seeing him as one of the top midfielders in world football. He has been linked with moves across Europe and regardless of if he gets a move or not, another season could propel him even further and he could be a force to be reckoned with in a new-look Portugal side in 2021.

Sticking with the Premier League and you have two attacking midfielders capable of keeping Portugal at the top. Bernardo Silva arguably has what it takes to lead the side now, as he is one of the most important players in Pep Guardiola’s Manchester City side.

The 25-year-old has impressed massively since coming to England in 2017. Silva’s ability to create countless chances for himself and his teammates means he is a threat to anyone he comes up against.

Joining him is recent Manchester United signing Bruno Fernandes. The former Sporting Lisbon captain set Manchester alight right from the off when he joined. Five straight Man of the Match awards showed just how much he can change a team’s fortunes and he can do the same for his national side. A full season in the Premier League between now and Euro 2021 could be just what he needs to help lead his side to glory.

It may not be the side that Portuguese fans are used to, but 2021 could mark the start of something great for their nation. Can Ronaldo go out strongly with his last hurrah, as he leads this group of youngsters to glory? Only time will tell, but every cloud has a silver lining and this tournament postponement may be just what Portugal needed.

They may remain outsiders, but that history shows that this means nothing to the Euro 2016 champions. Watch this space in the summer of 2021.

By Jak Richardson

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