MOSCOW (Reuters) - Pragmatic, uninspiring and too dependent on Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal’s performance at the World Cup is starting to bear an uncanny resemblance to their victorious Euro 2016 campaign.
Portugal emerged triumphant in France two years ago by doing the minimum necessary to win games, with coach Fernando Santos saying he was happy for them to be considered the tournament’s ugly ducklings.
They scraped through the group stage with three draws, then beat Croatia in extra-time, Poland on penalties, Wales with two second-half goals and France with another extra-time winner.
In all of the knockout matches, Portugal had less possession than their opponents, ranging from 41 percent against Croatia to 47 percent against France, and the same has happened in their opening two games at the World Cup.
Against Spain, Portugal had only 39 percent of the ball yet managed a 3-3 draw thanks to a Ronaldo hat-trick which included a brilliant last-gasp free kick.
In Wednesday’s match against Morocco, they struck early, again through Ronaldo, then held on grimly despite having only 47 percent possession.
That has left them needing one point against Iran — a team led by former Portugal coach Carlos Queiroz, whose approach is even more dour — to make the second round.
Santos has made no apologies for Portugal’s approach and their results back him up.
In 26 matches competitive matches since he took over in September 2014, Portugal have won 20 and lost once. Of those 20 wins, 10 have been by a single goal and most of the others were against weaker opponents.
“I don’t know what beautiful is,” the former electrical engineer told Reuters in an interview last year. “What is pretty for me and what is pretty for someone else is different.
“I can say one thing; you can only win the European championship and the World Cup by playing well; the concept of what is pretty or not, is something else.”
But there is a frustrating sense that they could do more.
Apart from Ronaldo, with his astonishing tally of 85 goals from 152 internationals, there is plenty more natural talent in the squad which has so far failed to manifest itself.
Bernardo Silva, in particular, was a huge disappointment against Morocco as he allowed himself to be outmuscled and misplaced a worrying number of passes.
Instead, it was the less flamboyant players who stood out, such as goalkeeper Rui Patricio, defenders Pepe and Jose Fonte, and the calm and composed William Carvalho in front of the defense.
This time even Santos appeared to be worried.
“There was no intensity in our game. We have players with a lot of skills and speed. We started well but then we were put under pressure and it was difficult,” he said.
Fonte, meanwhile, summed up what he considered to be Portugal’s biggest attribute. “We knew how to suffer,” he said.
It looks like there is a lot more of that to come.
Editing by Peter Rutherford