Going into Portugal’s Uefa Nations League semifinal against Switzerland, all the talk was about the new Cristiano Ronaldo of Portuguese football.
However, at the end of the 3-1 victory for A Seleção das Quinas, very little was said about the Benfica wunderkind João Félix. Instead, everybody was talking about the old Ronaldo, who once again showed why he remains one of world’s best footballers.
The Juventus striker had – virtually single-handedly – taken Portugal into a second major final within three years, as his hat-trick made the difference.
Today, as Portugal lines up against the Netherlands in the Estádio do Dragão in the final of the inaugural Nations League competition, Ronald Koeman’s side will know they need to stop Ronaldo if they stand any chance of winning.
The Oranje came from behind and needed extra time to see off England’s challenge in the semifinals, and the 3-1 victory for the Dutch had as much to do with England blunders at the back as it had to do with Dutch strengths.
Portuguese coach Fernando Santos has opted for a squad with plenty of experience and not much youth. Just five players of the 23-man squad are younger than 24.
Santos is expected to start with much of the same team that beat Switzerland, but there is doubt whether he will again give João Félix a starting place ahead of the more experienced Gonçalo Guedes, who came on for the starlet in the second half of the semifinal.
For Ronaldo, today’s final offers yet another opportunity to add to his illustrious career. Santos praised him after he had killed off the Swiss challenge in the semifinals: “It’s one of those things you don’t have enough adjectives to describe. He’s a genius.”
Like Santos, Dutch coach Koeman has opted for experience as he has just five players younger than 24 in his squad. Unlike Santos, though, he gave all of them a chance against England and, by all accounts, they took it.
Frenkie de Jong (22) looked dangerous in midfield and showed why Barcelona were happy to pay €75 million (R1.3 billion) to Ajax Amsterdam for his services.
Denzel Dumfries and Matthijs de Ligt were excellent in defence, and the 19-year-old De Ligt scored his side’s equalising goal midway through the second half to take the game into extra time.
They will have to be at their best today if they want to keep Ronaldo at bay, though experienced defender and captain Virgil van Dijk is aware that there is more to Portugal than just the Juventus striker.
“It’s not only Cristiano Ronaldo we’re going to face – we face a great Portugal. We will see what’s going to happen. I’m looking forward to playing this final with this team, and we’re going to give everything that we can to hopefully hold that trophy in the end and do everyone proud,” he said ahead of the match.
Van Dijk, who was a part of Liverpool’s Champions League-winning team last weekend, said that he had been impressed with Félix.
“I watch football as well. I’ve seen the Europa League [where João Félix impressed with Benfica]. Everyone has seen him. He’s a big talent for them. He has a bright future in front of him, if he stays humble and keeps working hard. And hopefully we can shut them down.”
If they can, the Oranje might finally win another trophy to go with the last one in 1988, when they won the Euros. Since then, they have played in six semifinals of the World Cup and the Euros, but have not got any silverware to show for it.
What is the Uefa Nations League?
The biennial competition was started to enable most Uefa members to play competitive matches instead of friendlies on the days set aside in the Fifa calendar for international games.
The Uefa members were divided into four divisions, or leagues, according to their ranking and were then drawn into four groups each.
The teams in the four groups – in most cases three teams per group – played each other in a round-robin format, with the four group winners of League A contesting the finals of the Nations League.
The competition includes promotion and relegation, with the bottom teams from each group being relegated into the league below them, while the top teams are promoted into the next, higher league.
To make the competition more attractive, the Nations League offers all countries a chance to qualify for the European Championships, giving those in the lower leagues a better chance to make it to the Euros.