It remains his team, but Joao Felix epitomises the immense talent available elsewhere for Fernando Santos, who has seldom dared to imagine and pursue the Selecao’s exciting potential. Here, in a quite fortunate opening group win in Qatar, Portugal displayed a hint of what they can become and the familiar frustration attached to Ronaldo’s presence in the side.
However, tasked with breaking down a wall of five Ghana defenders, including centre-backs Daniel Amartey, Alexander Djiku and Mohammed Salisu, there was a new and refreshing attempt to squeeze a little more out of this group while still demanding relatively little out of Ronaldo.
There was perhaps a hint of desperation about the system and the players selected; Santos might have been lured into it with a desire to cram in as many star names as possible. While Rafa Leao’s star is not quite bright enough yet to command a place in the line-up, although his decisive impact here brings the AC Milan star closer to an inevitable change there.
Ronaldo might well be a limited superstar, but Portugal’s modified diamond here also allowed Santos to capitalise on some of his other stars currently thriving at the forefront of modern European football.
Felix was drifting into deeper pockets, with Otavio’s desire to eat up the ground vacated. While Joao Cancelo, struggling to arrest a slight slump in form with Manchester City, gleefully tucked inside with Bruno Fernandes dovetailing nicely.
If Ruben Neves was the obvious pivot, Santos allowed Bernardo Silva to roam, eager to knit play together. The Wolves midfielder even ventured into the final third, overwhelming Mohammed Kudus in one of Ghana’s rare attempts to build possession from the back in the opening stages.
Ronaldo’s dynamism has faded in recent years, carefully rationing the number of sprints without the ball. But the Selecao collectively displayed an appetite to hassle and hurry the Black Stars from the outset.
The problem was, despite a feverish tempo at Stadium 974, they failed to capitalise, spurning chances to break the game open thanks to a rusty Ronaldo. Lacking a decisive touch after being tossed to the periphery of Erik ten Hag’s side before his acrimonious Manchester United exit, Ronaldo worked his way into the game.
The 37-year-old’s touch betrayed him initially, allowing Lawrence Ati-Zigi to storm out of goal and clatter into him. And a trademark towering header at the back post surprisingly lacked the usual direction.
Otto Addo’s side gradually started to adjust to the speed of Portugal’s attack and frustration soon set in after weathering the storm. But a gift soon arrived after the restart, denying us an immediate opportunity to witness quite how Santos would adjust to what appeared to be an impending stalemate.
Ronaldo’s slight touch and debatable contact from Mohammed Salisu followed, prompting a whistle and a penalty, emphatically dispatched into the left corner. Goals in five World Cups, he continues to create history.
But after Andre Ayew snatched an equaliser, Portugal were forced into a change that could transform their tournament. Leao was immediately introduced, providing pace and trickery.
Felix grabbed the second goal and continued to thrive between the lines: each move started in midfield by the Atletico Madrid forward would reach the edge of the Black Stars’ box in seconds thanks to Leao’s appetite to stretch the field.
A third quickly arrived in the most obvious example yet as to who Santos should really build this team around; Leao tucking the ball away low into the corner with a neat finish.
Ronaldo remains a blessing and a curse for this team; capable of decisive moments and a deadly touch inside the area, but ultimately nullifying certain aspects of a team capable of blowing opponents away.
Felix - and Leao - will define this team soon enough, but this fluid performance illustrates how he can co-exist with Ronaldo and ensure Portugal pose a threat deep into this tournament.