ST. PETERSBURG, Russia — Whisper it quietly, but this Confederations Cup might just prove to be exactly the transformative fortnight Portugal had wanted. While there is little gain in getting carried away by a 4-0 win over New Zealand, the European champions are gathering momentum and the identities of two players who made decisive impacts in steering them to the semifinals give cause for optimism.
While Cristiano Ronaldo was named man of the match for the third time in a row — having started the rout with a first-half penalty — two of Portugal’s newer generation had more convincing claims to the headlines and suggested they could be in the starting lineup to stay. Bernardo Silva and Andre Silva, who have made high-profile moves to Manchester City and AC Milan, respectively, this summer, scored smartly taken goals and shone throughout in a mobile, inventive front line.
Andre’s finish, lashed into the roof of the net for the third goal after a 30-yard solo run, was exceptional, while Bernardo took an ankle knock for his troubles in neatly dispatching Eliseu’s left-sided cross eight minutes before half-time. They had been selected in the starting lineup together for the second match in a row and perhaps one of the biggest questions being asked of their coach Fernando Santos — when exactly he will permanently accommodate an exciting younger generation — is close to being resolved.
Bernardo has certainly had a stop-start introduction to senior international life but this, his second goal in his 14th cap, was a significant moment and his presence coming off the flank lends Portugal more fluidity between the lines. At centre-forward Andre pulled the New Zealand centre-backs around with his intelligent movement and could have scored at least once more. He lightens the load on Ronaldo, who also hit the bar with a header, and provides a very specific threat of his own, too.
Portugal needed it as they took some time to get going. Santos said afterwards that New Zealand’s performance against Mexico, when they narrowly lost 2-1, put him on alert about the problems they could pose — which probably explains why Ronaldo, who was withdrawn midway through the second half, and Portugal’s other big guns were picked from the start.
“We knew it could be complicated,” Santos explained, but after being marginally second best for 20 minutes his team turned the screw. The result was all but secured by Bernardo’s goal although New Zealand, managed by the impressive 36-year-old Englishman Anthony Hudson, were bright and ambitious to the extent that Santos admitted they deserved a goal.
They stretched Portugal’s defence on occasion and caused enough uncertainty to force Santos into a decision that may yet cost his team. Santos admitted he had planned to replace Pepe early in the second half, with Portugal looking comfortable at the break, but had second thoughts after a strong re-emergence by New Zealand. Pepe promptly found his way into referee Mark Geiger’s book for a painfully late challenge on Thomas Doyle; it was his second yellow card of the tournament and means he will miss Wednesday’s semifinal in Kazan, which is likely to be against Chile or Germany.
Andre Silva, Bernardo Silva and Cristiano Ronaldo Valery Sharifulin\TASS via Getty Images
For New Zealand and Hudson, who was applauded as he left his postmatch news conference, it was the end of a valuable learning experience that is all the more necessary owing to the lack of top-level opposition in their local federation, Oceania. “I think everyone can see this team is on the right path,” Hudson said, and it was evident in the performances of Leeds striker Chris Wood — who was denied brilliantly by Rui Patricio in the 58th minute — and the impressive Zwolle winger Ryan Thomas.
If they are to feature in next year’s World Cup, assuming they win a playoff against the Solomon Islands, they will have to defeat the fifth-placed team in South American qualifying — currently Argentina. Taking the lessons from defeats such as this is vital if a spirited young team is to have any chance at all.
Portugal will have a day’s more rest than their last-four opponents and the Krestovsky Stadium has some time off, too. The next match it hosts will be the final and that time could be used to iron out some early problems. The crowd of 56,290 was 6,000 higher than the attendance at last Saturday’s opening game — even though that involved the host nation — but thousands of spectators entered the stadium late, huge queues dictating that many only took their seats late in the first half. The pitch remains an issue, too; Ronaldo said it was “difficult” and “the grass wasn’t very good” but Santos expressed a hope that it could be improved in the next week.
He will be primarily occupied, though, by the fact that his team are improving. Last Sunday, when Portugal drew 2-2 with Mexico, he was criticised for failing to start with the Silvas. They are now starting to show their worth, and it means Portugal could have happened upon a new dawn just in time for Russia 2018.