Renato Sanches takes centre stage to give Portugal new vigour


After all the fuss, the fretting and the fiddling with lineups, both got what they needed rather than exactly what they wanted. As Portugal celebrated with their supporters behind the goal at full-time, it was clear what they all felt – the 2016 vibes as they again scraped through in third, thanks to some classic Cristiano Ronaldo nervelessness. For France, there were shades of their 2018 World Cup group stage, smeared more with sweat than spectacular football.

Both had felt the need to reshape in midfield here to find some flow. Portugal had looked leaden in the middle in the opener against Hungary and even more so in defeat in Munich on Saturday, in which Danilo and William Carvalho proved that the answer to having arguably no in-form defensive midfielders was not to play both at the same time. The rejuvenated Renato Sanches’s cameos in the first two matches suggested he was everything that Fernando Santos needed – energy, brio and invention, with the possibility of a little protection for at least one of his team’s floundering full-backs a welcome bonus.

Didier Deschamps, meanwhile, made a sidestep closer to France’s winning shape in Russia three years ago, introducing the versatile Corentin Tolisso – the closest today’s squad has to the Swiss army knife of a player that Blaise Matuidi was back in 2018 – as part of a lop-sided three with Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappé. It offered flexibility for Tolisso and Paul Pogba to swap positions and held shape defensively when it needed to, with a surprising amount of defensive buy-in from Mbappé on the left.

In the first half, it didn’t work for France. At all. Sanches dominated, making an instant impact and propelling his team forward in the early minutes. How the Lille midfielder deserved this opportunity to take centre stage. Magnificent in Portugal’s run to glory in 2016, his stratospheric rise was checked by the harsh realities of life at Bayern Munich, and a loan to Swansea was never likely to revive him. What sort of place is the Premier League to piece together shattered confidence? Few exclusive watchers of English football would have bet on Sanches rather than Bruno Fernandes being the man to underscore Portugal’s chances this summer, but he is giving them new vigour. He has worked diligently and not without difficulty to edge back towards his former glory and here he was at 23, pulling the strings on a familiar elite stage.

That Portugal did a much better job of protecting the wide areas of the pitch than they had done in Munich was one interpretation. The other was that France lacked the natural width to test them, despite the rethink. This was a game in which Ousmane Dembélé, injured against Hungary and already home, would have been useful. Jules Koundé has looked the part when called on by his club side Sevilla to play at right-back, but here he looked like what he technically is – a centre-back playing at full-back.

Source: The Guardian