Portugal head into Sunday’s Euro 2016 final after another disciplined performance, proving again in their 2-0 win over Wales that they perform like a well-rehearsed orchestra rather than a solo act.
That has a huge amount to do with their 61-year-old conductor and coach Fernando Santos who took charge in September 2014, vowing to put “tactics first and technical ability second”.
Santos reduced the side’s dependency on glamorous striker Cristiano Ronaldo and sidelined gifted midfielder Joao Moutinho.
The impact has been impressive. Since Santos was appointed, the Portuguese have come through six matches at Euro 2016 without losing and are unbeaten in 13 competitive games.
On Sunday they will play in only their second major final since they lost to Greece in Euro 2004 on home soil.
Santos, who used to coach Greece, has never made any apologies for Portugal’s dour style and said earlier in the tournament that he was happy for his side to be Euro 2016’s “ugly duckling”.
Portugal, who usually dominate possession but rarely throw caution to the wind, owe as much to their young, versatile, dynamic midfield as to Ronaldo in attack and they gave Wales precious little breathing space on Wednesday.
Danilo, replacing the suspended William Carvalho, was strong and efficient in the holding role as Portugal largely cut off the supply lines to Welsh playmaker Gareth Bale.
Adrien Silva and Joao Mario were both strong in the tackle and quick on the ball while 18-year-old Renato Sanches was a constant threat on the right-hand side, even if his passing was sometimes wayward.
Real Madrid’s award-winning Ronaldo, so often hailed as the star of the team in the past, has to do his share of unglamorous tracking back these days.
Repeatedly praised by Santos for his leadership, Ronaldo marks opposing defenders and fights for the ball like everyone else although, in an apparent concession, he has been allowed to take every free kick from a potential scoring position.
The striker did get forward to head home Portugal’s first goal superbly. But, interesting, Wales coach Chris Coleman was quick to praise Portugal’s system after the game.
“Portugal were criticised for the way they played and their style of play and, this that and the other, but if you get to a semi-final, you have to have something about you,” he said.
“It’s not just about Cristiano Ronaldo, they have a togetherness about them, they have a good system, they have a plan and they stick to that plan,” he said.
“It’s not just the talent that wins you a game, you have to be a team and I saw a team tonight in Portugal,” Coleman added.
“It’s not always the best players that win the tournament. Portugal are resilient and hard to play against and if you’ve got the man (Ronaldo) playing as a striker, he’s not bad, to say the least.he’s always to going a chance or score a goal.”
Like many coaches before him, Santos has only stumbled on his ideal line-up during the tournament.
Jose Fonte has proved a more solid option that Ricardo Carvalho at the centre of the defence, Cedric Soares has replaced Vieirinha at right back.
Sanches was given his first international start in the quarter-final against Poland, responding with a man-of-the-match performance.
In Sunday’s final they are likely to provide a major tactical challenge to the winner of Thursday’s second semi-final between France and Germany.