Portugal win Nations League
Portugal win Nations League
their football culture may be dominated by the global superstar in their No 7 shirt but Portugal have developed a habit of winning big matches that goes a lot deeper than the status of Cristiano Ronaldo, in what is becoming a golden dusk to his career.

This was the 18th major trophy of his life on Sunday night, if that is what we are to call the Nations League, while excluding all those Supercopas and Club World Cups, and pre-lift he put it on his shoulder to carry it over his team-mates, with an easy familiarity. Still no-one quite knows what to make of the Nations League, and certainly no-one among the winners or the losers were behaving like this was a career-changing moment, but the home crowd loved it.

European champions in 2016, and a replaying of that triumph on a smaller scale three years later – no-one could deny that this Portugal team knows how to win. They controlled the Dutch passing game much more shrewdly than England ever managed on Thursday night and when the time came, it was the turn of Goncalo Guedes to pull the trigger, just as the relative unknown Eder had done in Paris in the final of Euro 2016.

The great Holland resurgence fell one step short of a trophy this time, paying the price for the absence of a great goalscorer and perhaps some of the ringcraft you need against a team as cussed as the Portuguese. Fernando Santos’ side were superb in defence, giving up a single attempt on target – a header from Memphis Depay – and it was hard to argue with the Uefa technical committee awarding the man of the match award to the Benfica defender Ruben Dias.

The player of the tournament went to Bernardo Silva, the architect of this game’s only goal – and the end to a fine season for the man from Manchester City. As for Ronaldo, he had to settle for tournament top goalscorer, thanks to that hat-trick against Switzerland on Wednesday night. He does something different now for Portugal, to the days when he carried the team on his back. Certainly there are still goals but it is also as much about the shock and awe of his sheer presence on a new generation who have watched his career.

The Portugal captain is there to lead, and when the Dutch were trying to turn the screw in pursuit of an equaliser it was him back in his own penalty area at corners, encouraging and organising. This is unquestionably a better Portugal team than the one who shocked France in the final of Euro 2016 three years ago. They can still be hard to watch, and they could not care less about that, but this country, with a population of 10 million, keeps punching far above its weight in international football.

Come the real defence of their European title next summer, the champions will be hard to beat. They did not panic under the high press of the Dutch, and there is never any rush to play the game their own way. Instead they waited out the early pressure from Holland and benefited from the briefest slip of concentration – a mistake by goalkeeper Jasper Cillessen who should have saved Guedes’ shot.

Later, Santos would say that his team was very different to the side that won in Euro 2016, testament, he said, to the enduring ability of his country to produce top players. As for the style, he said: “I’m not talking about handsome or ugly, I only think about that when I am judging great painters. What I do know is that you have to win.”

Without the injured Pepe in the side, his central defenders, Jose Fonte and Dias were excellent. So too, the midfielder Bruno Fernandes, 24, from Sporting Lisbon, one of those names in orbit around Manchester City. He keeps the ball moving forward without any fuss and has lots of energy. Portugal’s statistics reflected the way in which they had controlled Holland’s midfield, including Frenkie De Jong. The hosts had just 43 per cent of the possession but 18 attempts on goal and seven on target. Holland had just a single one of their own on target. Before the break Ronald Koeman’s team had cumulatively just four touches in the Portugal area.

Bernardo and Guedes tucked in along the flanks of the three central midfielders and blocked as many holes as possible. There was no Joao Felix in this side, the young pretender having struggled in the previous game. Neither was Ruben Neves in the midfield. Instead Santos opted for William Carvalho and Porto’s Danilo to keep the door closed and Fernandes shutting down De Jong.

Barcelona’s new maestro had plenty of the ball, he just did not get the chance to open up the opposition in the way he would usually expect to do. Later voted the tournament’s leading young player, these are the challenges facing him as he moves into the phase of his career when expectations are that much higher and opponents more focussed on curtailing his influence.

“Once the goal came it became even more difficult,” Koeman said later. “They are masters in defending when they have a lead”. He acknowledged the deficit of attacking options in his side when it came to breaking down such a formidable defence. “Maybe,” he said, “we miss a bit of that creativity in that attacking way.”

The goal came on the hour, Bernardo carrying the ball forward and squaring it at just the moment to make the Dutch defence hesitate about coming out to Guedes. He let the ball run across his body and struck it fiercely with his right foot past Cillessen’s left hand.

A bad one for the Holland goalkeeper who moved quickly enough to get a glove on Guedes’ shot but was not strong enough to stop it going in. Within five minutes of the goal, Depay glimpsed what turned out to be Holland’s one chance and headed it straight at Rui Patricio. Holland switched to a 4-2-3-1 system with substitute Donny van de Beek as the No 10 behind Depay. But Portugal are a hard team to dislodge from the lead.

They have shown that they can produce winning teams as well as the one superstar at the centre of it all. Not every country that has had a player of Ronaldo’s status can say the same.

Meanwhile the Dutch defender Matthijs De Ligt later confirmed to the Dutch media that Ronaldo had told him on the pitch after the game to come to Juventus this summer. ‘I was a bit shocked,’ De Ligt said, ‘that’s why I laughed. But I didn’t say anything.