PORTO, Portugal -- European champions Portugal won the inaugural Nations League with a 1-0 win over the Netherlands on Sunday and on this evidence must surely be early candidates to challenge with France for next year’s Euro 2020 title.
The narrow margin of the win did not express the gap in quality between the sides at the Dragao Stadium — the weakness of this Dutch team has always been their lack of real firepower and they paid heavily for that.
But while the Netherlands were never out of the game, Portugal were superior in all departments.
The Dutch finished above France and Germany to reach the final four and then beat England in the semi-finals, but while there is no doubt that Ronald Koeman’s side are on an upward trajectory, their limitations were exposed by Portugal.
For all the hype around the imagined confrontation between Cristiano Ronaldo and Europe’s top defender Virgil van Dijk, it was other players who made the difference for the home side.
Bernardo Silva, unsurprisingly, was behind so much of the positive play from Portugal. Buzzing around the right flank, the Manchester City midfielder was alert, inventive and threatening.
Bruno Fernandes provided much of the same from midfield, his clever touches, intelligent use of the ball and movement into space showing why he is the latest Portuguese player to be linked with a move to one of Europe’s big clubs.
The decisive goal came on the hour from Goncalo Guedes, the 22-year-old Valencia forward who amply justified his inclusion ahead of Joao Felix, with his link-up play and ability to stretch a Dutch defence already pre-occupied with Ronaldo.
Indeed, Ronaldo was relatively quiet — another indication that this Portugal side is continuing to improve, looking much less reliant on the 34-year-old who can now play as a pure striker given Bernardo Silva’s ability to lead the counter-attacks.
The status of the Nations League was compared by Netherlands coach Ronald Koeman to a Super Cup at club level but, whatever the value of the new competition, Portugal in their two wins here and performances in qualifying showed they are arguably a better side than the team which triumphed at Euro 2016.
Three years ago in France, Portugal only progressed from the group stage in third place, behind Iceland and Hungary, having drawn all their games.
They rarely shone in the knockout stage, winning the competition with just one solitary victory inside 90 minutes, but showing resilience and discipline in their 1-0 triumph over France after extra time in the final.
Those qualities remain important to Fernando Santos’s side but this is a much more expressive and creative team, with the younger faces he has introduced turning Portugal into a formidable force.
Put simply, there was no Bernardo Silva, Bruno Fernandes or Guedes at Euro 2016 and, with the 19-year-old Felix emerging as another attacking option, Santos will defend the title with a broad range of quality choices.
At centre-back Ruben Dias, the 22-year-old Benfica defender, was calm and authoritative, looking comfortable bringing the ball out of defence.
The solid, physical, holding midfield pair of William Carvalho and Danilo show Santos is not getting carried away by the talent available to him and their simple but effective work gives the team crucial equilibrium.
World champions France must be favourites to win the pan-European tournament next year while England, despite their disappointment in defeat by the Dutch in the semi-final, will fancy their chances.
The Netherlands, if they can find more firepower in attack, could be in contention and only a fool dismisses heavyweights Germany, Spain and Italy.
But there is a level of close understanding and teamwork about Santos’s outfit that gives them more the appearance of a club side than a national team and that can be crucial.
Unlike the side who were crowned European champions three years ago, this Portugal are a true pleasure to watch.