Could Ronaldo really lose his Portugal place? Fernando Santos' World Cup starting XI selection headaches
“I started preparing a list with 55 names on it, and it was not easy, so imagine what it’s like having to choose 26,” Portugal boss Fernando Santos told reporters recently. “It’s very difficult, fortunately, for Portugal and for me.
“What would be bad would be having to select 26 but only having 20 or so players to choose from. It’s a headache, but it’s a good headache.”
What is even more of a headache? Picking a starting XI out of those 26 players who will fly to Qatar in November.
Santos' legacy as a manager depends on his first-team selections, and many positions still remain up for grabs heading into the upcoming Nations League matches against the Czech Republic and Spain.
Portugal's defence is well-established, but beyond that, it's chaos.
Below, GOAL runs through Portugal's toughest starting line-up battles, including Cristiano Ronaldo's quest to finish his World Cup career in style...
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Ruben Neves vs Matheus Nunes vs Joao Palhinha vs Danilo Pereira vs Joao Moutinho
Santos has recently leaned on a three-man central midfield anchored by a deep-lying player. Several options have been used after William Carvalho transitioned to more of a box-to-box role, and Santos has yet to make a final decision.
It looks like it won't be Wolves veteran Joao Moutinho, who was not named in the latest squad despite being fully fit – an ominous sign for his chances to start in Qatar.
Based on Santos' latest line-up choices, Moutinho's club team-mate, Ruben Neves, appears ready to take over. Neves, 25, started Portugal's final three Nations League matches in June and replaced Moutinho at half-time in the other summer game. He's emerged as an incredible playmaker who can ping outrageous long balls and hit stunning long shots.
Wolves' Matheus Nunes and Fulham's Joao Palhinha are excellent midfielders in their own right, though, and will provide strong competition to Neves, while Paris Saint Germain's Danilo Pereira is there as a versatile alternative who excels in the safer, shorter passing game.
As it stands: Neves
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Bruno Fernandes vs Vitinha vs Bernardo Silva vs Renato Sanches vs William Carvalho
Manchester United star Bruno Fernandes was memorably dropped from the line-up in Portugal’s final two Euro 2020 matches for poor form, but he’s worked his way back into Santos’ plans with nine starts since last September. That includes him getting the nod in World Cup play-off matches against Turkey and North Macedonia. He’s a near-lock to start against Ghana in the Selecao’s opener in Qatar, even if his place for the rest of the tournament is dependent on how he fares in that game.
Santos sometimes prefers a midfielder with strong ball-winning instincts alongside Fernandes for increased security against counterattacks, so while Bernardo Silva has started next to his fellow Manchester-based countryman on three occasions in the past year, it’s also possible that he will instead be used as a wide attacker.
PSG newcomer Renato Sanches – already facing an uphill battle to make the XI – is out of Portugal’s squad this month with an adductor injury, meaning it could mean club team-mate Vitinha snatching the starting role.
The picture will be much more clear when Santos selects his line-ups during the September international break, but for now, Vitinha’s ability to read opponents and make interceptions, along with his substantial creative skill set, makes him a high-upside option. Despite just three senior international caps to his name, the 22-year-old’s summer involvement with Portugal suggests he’s ready to go.
If it’s not Vitinha, Carvalho, a long-time Santos favourite, seems the likeliest choice to partner with Fernandes.
As it stands: Fernandes and Vitinha to both start (Bernardo to play in attack)
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Rafael Leao vs Diogo Jota vs Pedro Neto vs Goncalo Guedes vs Joao Felix
Whew, that's a lot of names! Let's eliminate some of them from line-up contention to make it more manageable.
Wolves' Goncalo Guedes somewhat surprisingly missed the September squad, so his path to being picked against Ghana is closed. His club team-mate Pedro Neto was selected ahead of him this month but is fighting for a place in the World Cup squad as he continues his comeback from a long-term injury layoff.
Sporting CP's Pedro Goncalves is making an impression with nine goal contributions in nine appearances in all competitions to start this season, but he's not considered to be in the national team picture at all right now.
Meanwhile, Atletico Madrid's Joao Felix has just three goals in 22 senior Portugal appearances and has fallen out of favour with Santos, simply not fitting the style the manager wishes to execute.
That leaves AC Milan's Rafael Leao and Liverpool's Diogo Jota – two potential match-winners.
While Leao is considered the better long-term prospect and has maintained a cleaner bill of health than Jota amid his rapid rise, the Reds star is far more accomplished under Santos.
Jota has scored nine goals in 27 appearances for the Selecao, while Leao has yet to find the net in nine outings.
Until further notice, Jota should be considered the favourite to start if he stays healthy. Things could change soon, though.
As it stands: Jota
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Otavio vs Bernardo Silva
Bernardo has the name recognition, the accolades, the creative range.
But it was Otavio who scored and assisted in the World Cup qualifying play-off against Turkey while making just his third ever senior appearance. Santos rewarded him with starts in four of the next five games.
This isn't a question of who is the better footballer – it's about whom Santos personally trusts more, and momentum was recently on Otavio's side.
The Porto star will be devastated, then, that an injury has kept him out of the squad this month, preventing a final audition to earn a dream start in Portugal's World Cup opener.
Bernardo can now seal his starting place along the front-line – assuming he isn't picked in central midfield – if he carries his recent form under Pep Guardiola into the international break.
As it stands: Bernardo
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Cristiano Ronaldo vs Andre Silva vs Joao Felix
Chances are, you've already formed an opinion before this section. You believe it's outrageous to suggest that Ronaldo would be dropped, or you think it's necessary for Portugal to be at their best. There's rarely nuance with CR7 commentary.
So, let's stick to what we know. Ronaldo, 37, is no longer a regular club starter at Manchester United despite the squad carrying few strong options at striker. Erik ten Hag has shattered the notion that Ronaldo is untouchable. And the five-time Ballon d'Or winner, to his credit, has spent the past few weeks quietly committed to his new role as an early season mess at Old Trafford improves.
International line-up calls are often more sentimental, but Santos still kept Ronaldo on the bench in June to begin a Nations League draw against Spain. Afterwards, the manager boldly declared the move was tactical rather than fitness-related.
"Cristiano Ronaldo? They often ask why he is a starter. It's the million-dollar question," Santos told reporters. "It was a technical and tactical option for this game. It seemed to us the best solution. For the way we wanted to play and approach the game. It has nothing to do with Cristiano's quality – that's not even in question."
Still, Ronaldo went on to start the next two matches against Switzerland and the Czech Republic. He netted twice in the Switzerland outing.
His most likely adversaries for the No. 9 role are RB Leipzig's Andre Silva or Felix, unless Santos brings Jota or Leao inside from their typical wide positions. Silva is in abysmal club form, with no league goals since May 8. Felix isn't a natural striker and hasn't started under Santos in more than a year. Leao doesn't usually play the position at club level. Jota is set to be deployed elsewhere in the first-choice formation if healthy.
All good news for Ronaldo.
Santos would need a very solid reason to bench one of the greatest players of all time. It would be a career-defining management decision that could alienate millions of fans. While he seems potentially open to the idea, the alternatives aren't doing enough yet to force his hand.
As it stands: Ronaldo
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Projected Portugal starting XI
Goalkeeper: Diogo Costa
Defence: Nuno Mendes, Pepe, Ruben Dias, Joao Cancelo
Midfield: Fernandes, Neves, Vitinha
Attack: Jota, Ronaldo, Bernardo