SOCHI, Russia (Reuters) – Portugal coach Fernando Santos spent the World Cup denying that his team was only about Cristiano Ronaldo, but he will leave Russia with even more doubts about the future of the European champions once their talismanic forward decides to hang up his boots.
Ronaldo’s hat-trick in a thrilling 3-3 opening draw against Spain helped light the competition up, but after that he netted just one goal, in the side’s 1-0 victory over Morocco.
He failed to breach Iran’s gritty defense in a 1-1 draw where Portugal suffered some nervous stoppage-time minutes during which the Asian powerhouse could have eliminated them at the group stage.
On Saturday, the Euro 2016 winners failed to find a way out of their problems, with Ronaldo largely ineffective against Uruguay’s well-organized defense and close man-marking, and he appeared frustrated with the lack of delivery from midfield.
Santos had bristled at a question about the team’s dependence on Ronaldo before Saturday’s match, brushing it off with a wry joke.
“I just got another free coffee because I bet on this question! I get the coffee. Thank you for the question,” he told a news conference.
He argued that every team depended on their star players, citing Uruguay’s reliance on Luis Suarez and Edinson Cavani to back up his point.
Ronaldo played a pivotal role in France during Portugal’s triumphant campaign two years ago, and during the tournament in Russia he became Europe’s top international goal-scorer and only second in the world to Iran’s Ali Daei.
But his own strong form has not put an end to Portugal’s scoring problems, mirroring their Euro 2016 run where they drew all their group games and had less possession than their opponents in all of their knockout matches.
For the Iran game, Portugal solved their possession problem, controlling the ball 68 percent of the time while completing a whopping 548 passes compared with their opponent’s 155, and with an accuracy rate of 89 percent.
And against Uruguay, they managed 61 percent ball possession, played more than double the number of passes of their opponent, and with a much better pass accuracy. Their midfield dominance, however, proved insufficient.
The proven marksman Ronaldo was understandably given no space by Uruguay’s defense, and he hardly got a touch in the opposition box in the first half.
Portugal had no Plan B to fall back on to answer Cavani’s masterful strikes on either side of Pepe’s headed goal in the 55th minute.
Their defense did not appear as solid as it did in France, and the midfield lacked creativity.
It was little surprise, therefore, that Santos urged the Real Madrid forward to keep playing for the national side.
“Cristiano still has a lot to give to football, and I hope he will stay to help the young players grow and develop,” Santos said on Saturday night. “We have a team with many young players, and of course we all want him there with us.”
Ronaldo himself was non-committal about his future.
“It’s not the time to talk about the future when it comes to the players and coach,” the Portugal captain said.
“This team will continue to be one of the best in the world, with quality players, a young group, united.
“I am confident and happy because this team will always fight with all their strength,” he said.
Reporting by Sudipto Ganguly; Editing by Hugh Lawson