Fernando Santos’ decision to drop Cristiano Ronaldo from Portugal’s team might have come too late in the eyes of some.
Ronaldo started each of Portugal’s World Cup group games in Qatar, though only managed one goal, converting a penalty he won in the opening win over Ghana.
That goal made history, as Ronaldo has often done. He is the only male player to have scored at five World Cups.
Yet after frustrating Santos with his reaction to a South Korea player’s taunts in Portugal’s final Group H game, Ronaldo found himself on the bench for Tuesday’s 6-1 rout of Switzerland.
His replacement Goncalo Ramos scored a hat-trick, surely ensuring the bench is where Ronaldo will stay for Saturday’s quarter-final against Morocco, the fourth African team to make the last eight of a World Cup.
Yet Ronaldo’s omission might have afforded another Portuguese youngster (and like Ramos, one who made his name with Benfica) a chance to finally prove his worth.
Struggling to live up to the hype
Joao Felix seemed set to be a superstar when he broke into the Benfica side in the 2018-19 season.
He directly contributed to 22 goals in 26 league appearances, netting 15 and assisting seven, creating 29 chances. Joao Felix was awarded the Primeira Liga’s Best Young Player of the Year and the Golden Boy award, and a huge move was on the cards.
Atletico Madrid, cash-rich with the imminent sale of Antoine Griezmann to Barcelona, pipped the rest of Europe’s elite to the 19-year-old boy wonder, paying a club-record €126million to take him to the Spanish capital.
Yet, for whatever reason, whether that be Diego Simeone’s pragmatic approach or Joao Felix suffering the inconsistencies that many young players do, it hasn’t quite clicked at Atleti.
He has started only 53 games across three and a half years, and in only one season has he created over 20 chances. Joao Felix’s best return for goals and assists combined has been 12, coming in the 2020-21 and 2021-22 campaigns.
Sure, at times it has looked as though it has started to fall into place, but a player of Joao Felix’s talents needs the space and time and tactical flexibility to show what he can do. Too often under Simeone, that has not been the case.
During his time at Atleti, Joao Felix – whose best role falls somewhere between a striker and an attacking midfielder – has played second fiddle to or had to complement Luis Suarez, Alvaro Morata, Griezmann (the man he was brought in to replace, of course) and even Marcos Llorente, before Simeone moved the Spain international to a wide berth.
It has been a similar story on the international stage. Ronaldo has been the player Santos has worked his system around, the entire team geared to getting the best out of international football’s record goalscorer.
That has seen Joao Felix often fall to the wayside, what with Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes, Andre Silva and Diogo Jota, who has missed out in Qatar through injury, among the other attackers he has to compete with.
Time to shine
Yet he has been entrusted in Qatar, starting all three of Portugal’s truly meaningful matches, scoring in the 3-2 opening win over Ghana. The first two of those starts came alongside Ronaldo, but against Switzerland Joao Felix was placed on the left of a narrow front three that included Ramos and Bruno Fernandes.
Joao Felix thrived. With freedom to drift, he set up two of Portugal’s goals, becoming the nation’s first player to provide two assists in a World Cup knockout game, and his performance even drew comparisons to Kaka.
It was Joao Felix’s neat ball through to Ramos from the half-space on the left side of Switzerland’s box that led to Portugal’s 17th-minute opener.
Having received the ball on the cusp of the opposition area midway through the second half, Joao Felix had the awareness to get his head up rather than shoot, and the poise to find another perfect pass through to Ramos for Ronaldo’s replacement to wrap up his hat-trick.
His 42 touches occurred across the pitch, while he lost possession only seven times, a particularly impressive figure given, of Portugal’s players, only Bernardo Silva (15) attempted more passes in the final third than the 23-year-old (11).
Santos must stick to his guns
“I don’t think it’s mandatory to pass to Cristiano. We try to pass to the player that’s available,” said Joao Felix when previewing the meeting with Morocco.
“Independent of Cristiano being on the field, we have the same tactics, the ones we’ve been using for all four games. He has skills that other players have and vice-versa. We, as a team, have our own identity and we focus on that.”
Joao Felix might have claimed that the tactics do not change, but it seemed clear against Switzerland that, without Ronaldo in the side, Portugal had found their groove.
The signs had been there even before the World Cup, though. Ronaldo did not feature in a pre-tournament friendly against Nigeria and Portugal won 4-0.
Portugal had 15 shots against the Swiss, and remarkably got nine of those on target and finished with 2.28 expected goals (xG).
In the three matches Ronaldo had started, Portugal had only finished with an xG of 2.0 once – in their opening win over Ghana, and a penalty in that game will have accounted for a large chunk of that value.
With Portugal playing so well against Switzerland, Santos must stand by his decision.
Yes, Ronaldo can still provide great moments, but he can do so off the bench. At 37, this will likely be his last World Cup, if not his final major tournament.
Joao Felix, who could well leave Atleti for pastures new in January, is the future, and he has proved capable of taking up the mantle.