Sport

Portugal’s ‘bus driver’ Santos hopes to find route through France to last 16

Fernando Santos came back with a fine retort to Marco Rossi’s observation that a kit man or coach driver could manage Portugal given the depth of talent at their disposal. “I have huge respect for all my colleagues but I also have huge respect for all bus drivers and kit men,” he replied. “And I’m telling you in all frankness – I have enormous pride in being a good bus driver for this team.” And as on the route to glory at Euro 2016, Portugal’s manager has set off on a precarious course.

Hungary’s manager eventually withdrew the remark and apologised to Santos following his team’s 3-0 defeat by the reigning European champions last Tuesday. In fairness to Rossi, an Italian who answers questions not with a straight bat but with a paintbrush, such is his love of imagery, his comment was meant as a tribute to Portugal’s players and not a slight on the manager who won the first major tournament in the country’s history. But Santos was clearly stung by the oversight and, given the manner of Saturday’s 4-2 loss to Germany, knows an increasing number of critics are appearing in his rear-view mirror.

“I don’t really care about the criticism,” João Moutinho insisted on Monday. “I make my own analysis on and off the pitch and of course things didn’t go well but we’re working to rectify this little setback. We’d worked hard all week to put into practice what the coach wanted but we didn’t manage to do it against Germany. Football is like that sometimes. We can’t be licking our wounds thinking about a game that is already behind us. We gave our best but simply couldn’t do it. Now we will give more and work harder to reach our goals.”

Both Portugal and France will be seeking a reaction to weekend disappointments when they collide at the Puskas Arena on Wednesday. It is a game with widespread implications for several of the tournament favourites, and not only those in Group F given England, the Netherlands and Belgium could face whoever finishes second and third. France have the luxury of knowing they are through following Tuesday’s results, in contrast to Portugal. Third place is not guaranteed for the holders should they slip up again and Germany defeat Rossi’s team in Munich.

Portugal’s heavy loss at the Football Arena, and specifically their inability to repel Germany’s repeated raids down the wings, raised doubts over Santos’s approach and whether he is maximising enviable resources that, on paper at least, give him a stronger squad than the triumphant group of 2016. Then, Portugal scraped into the last 16 after draws against Iceland, Austria and Hungary brought a third-placed finish and the pressure is on Santos again. They are the only team to win the Euros without winning a group-stage game. They have improved on that return this time around and Moutinho exuded calm, confident experience as he assessed Wednesday’s “final” against France.

The Wolves midfielder added: “It’s hypothetical whether we finish first, second or third. Our focus is on winning. We have our fate in our own hands. Our path is visible and we know what we have to do. We know how to overcome these obstacles and we’ll try to reach the goal of the knockout phase. Every game is a final. This is a final and if we reach the knockout stage then every game will be a final there too.

“France are a great team and not only with the three players up front [Kylian Mbappé, Karim Benzema and Antoine Griezmann]. With the others behind them they can ruin any national team’s day but we will keep working the way we have done until now. We have managed to liquidate other hard national teams before and we will try to impose our game and be victorious again. We have already demonstrated that we have the skills to overcome all these difficulties along the way. There is a long way to go.”

Portugal’s victory over France in the 2016 final in Paris inevitably hangs over the reunion in Budapest. But that was five years ago and, as Lucas Digne pointed out, any psychological edge that gave Santos’s team will have been diminished by time and more recent encounters between the two. The teams played out a goalless draw in the Nations League in October before N’Golo Kante gave France a 1-0 win in Lisbon a month later.

“To lose in front of the French public was really bad but the group showed a lot of character to go on and win the World Cup,” the Everton left-back said. “We’ve played other games against Portugal since and we’ve shown our qualities. We have to show them again on Wednesday but we know we have to be careful because Portugal are a really good team.”