Portugal are painful to watch…but they care not a jot

Pretty much as soon as Ronaldo’s header hit the back of the net in the fourth minute, you knew that he was guaranteed to receive another Man of the Match award, such is the cloying awe of FIFA towards the game’s superstars. In truth, there were about seven better players on the pitch on Wednesday afternoon, and all of them were wearing the red and green of Morocco. This was a pretty rancid performance for a Portugal team lacking both invention and ambition, but Euro 2016 has given Fernando Santos license to kill us through boredom.

“We have to play like we did in Euro 2016,” said Santos before the game, and Portugal really did deliver. After all, this is the same Portugal side who did not win a single group game on their way to becoming the European champions. And we do not say ‘the same Portugal side’ lightly; eight of the 11 who started against Morocco were part of the team that lined up against France two years ago. Their grind towards glory in Paris is being recreated in Russia with largely the same cast.

The key, it seems, is to approach every game as if you were the underdog. And that tactic does not shift with the opposition; it worked against Spain with a Ronaldo-inspired 3-3 draw and it would work against Morocco. It matters not that this clash pitted the European champions against a team ranked marginally above Scotland in the FIFA rankings who had just lost 1-0; Portugal were still happy to cede possession, cede territory and cede rather a lot of chances. To say that Morocco were the better side is not even close to a controversial statement.

While some England fans are crying about a 2-1 win in a game they utterly dominated, Portugal fans will celebrate a victory which takes them to the edge of a last-16 place in almost no style whatsoever. Defensively they are as slow as you would expect for a team with a 69-year-old pairing who play in Turkey and Portugal, central midfielder William Carvalho looks laboured and heavy-legged, Raphael Guerreiro, Bernardo Silva is basically anonymous and Ronaldo’s strike partner Goncalo Guedes looks a shadow of the man some of us had predicted to win hearts and minds at this tournament. Never has it been more true that if their star player had swapped sides, the scoreline would have been reversed. Actually, forget ‘reversed’, Morocco would have won 4-0.

And yet, Portugal will not care. They are led by one of the finest players in the history of football, who has finally delivered at a World Cup. Could they win it? Logic says no, but nobody would have predicted their triumph in France after two group games they drew 1-1 and 0-0. After that latter draw against Austria which was marked by a Ronaldo missed penalty, Santos said: “Of course, we’re going through a tough time right now, but we can’t wallow in our misery.”

In truth, this Portugal side is even worse than the one trapped in that ‘misery’; the only difference is that now Ronaldo is scoring goals. So when you ask yourself if this Portugal side could go on to add the World Cup to the European Championship, your brain says ‘no’ and your heart says ‘hell no’, and yet you would not rule anything out. This is unlovable but effective football.

Sarah Winterburn