With or without Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal remain one of the most impressive teams in Europe as they showed once again with their 3-0 Nations League win over Sweden on Wednesday.
Sweden have made a habit of knocking teams such as Portugal out of their stride with their aggressive, physical style but the European champions refused to be bullied, even without their talismanic all-time record scorer.
The 35-year-old was ruled out of the match on Tuesday after testing positive for COVID-19 and flew back to Italy, where he plays for Juventus, before Wednesday’s game to sit out at least 10 days in quarantine.
Ronaldo also missed the match at home to Croatia last month due to a toe infection – but Portugal also won that one 4-1.
In fact, there have often been murmurs that Portugal look a better, more coherent side without Ronaldo, whose presence can be overbearing for younger players.
Two years ago, he sat out of the Nations League qualifying stage altogether to concentrate on his club football and Portugal cruised through their group without losing.
When he returned for the Final Four last year, Portugal won that as well, with Ronaldo scoring a hat-trick in their 3-1 semi-final win over Switzerland.
“Portugal have played well (without Ronaldo) plenty of times already,” said Santos who, has lost only three competitive games since taking over six years ago.
“We are certainly not better without him, but the team still have the capability, quality and strategy to face any opponents.”
On Wednesday, it was Diogo Jota’s turn to shine. Selected as Ronaldo’s replacement, the 23-year-old set up the first goal for Bernardo Silva and scored the other goals himself.
But Portugal were impressive all-round. Rui Patricio was unflappable in goal and the central defensive pairing of Pepe and Ruben Dias also looked solid.
Best of all, maybe, was the midfield pairing of Danilo and the remarkably dependable William Carvalho, who is back in the team after a series of nagging injuries.
“We managed to make things easier for ourselves,” said Angola-born Carvalho.
“It wasn’t in response to Ronaldo’s absence – he’s the best player in the world and his absence is always felt. But we performed well without Cristiano and that was our aim.”
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