Fernando Santos expects Portugal to compete strongly for back-to-back European titles but does not think his defending champions are favourites heading into Euro 2020.

Goals from Bruno Fernandes and Cristiano Ronaldo – his 99th in international colours – secured a battling 2-0 win in Luxembourg on Sunday and made sure of Portugal's place in next year's tournament.

Santos' side only won one game inside 90 minutes as they ground their way to glory in France in 2016.

The emergence of Bernardo Silva, Joao Felix, Ruben Neves and Fernandes, alongside the presence of the evergreen Ronaldo, arguably gives the veteran coach a far stronger squad than the one that won a maiden major international honour for the country.

However, much as Santos never talked down Portugal's Euro 2016 prospects, he was not about to play cheerleader.

"We are candidates at the Euros, we never assume as we are favourites," he told a post-match news conference.

"The Portuguese team has quality. When Portugal can gather creativity, quality and artistic notes, and at the same time realise that the game, at certain times, needs other things, [we are] practically unbeatable.

"It is not easy to beat Portugal, Portugal have all the conditions to be able to make a good European Championship. 

"The status is the same as always. When we went to Euro 2016, they said it was crazy when I said Portugal was a candidate."

A wretched playing surface at Stade Josy Barthel frustrated Portugal for long periods as they were unable to locate the free-flowing form that brushed aside Lithuania 6-0 on Thursday.

Ronaldo's expected canter towards a century of international goals never materialised, with a poached effort from on the goal line in the 86th minute all the Juventus star had to show for his efforts.

"It was not an exhibition with artistic notes, as it was against Lithuania," Santos said.

"Before the game we could not appreciate the situation of the pitch, but we were aware of how it was and the truth is that posed some problems, especially in the circulation of the ball.

"The players had difficulty getting their foot on the ball. For the first 20 minutes, we couldn't get the game right and Luxembourg are a team that presses well and are physically strong.

"From the 25th minute, things got more balanced, we started playing differently and scored the [Fernandes] goal.

"It was a tougher game than we expected but it showed the character and personality of these players."

Cristiano Ronaldo took his tally of international goals to 99 with a late tap-in as Portugal secured a place at Euro 2020 with a laboured 2-0 win over Luxembourg.

Ronaldo fell just short of becoming the second player in history to reach a century for his country after Iran's Ali Daei on an afternoon when he struggled on a slow pitch at Stade Jose Barthel, where the reigning European champions were made to work hard for the victory.

The creative endeavour of Bernardo Silva proved more of a threat than Ronaldo's presence and it was the Manchester City playmaker who teed up Bruno Fernandes to break the deadlock late in the first half of Sunday's Group B clash.

Thereafter Portugal offered little and those gathered at Stade Josy Barthel to see Ronaldo make history were instead treated to an impressive display from a side ranked 96th in the world by FIFA, but the Juventus talisman did manage to score from practically on the line with four minutes remaining.

Ronaldo gave Anthony Moris an easy save with a tame shot from 12 yards early on but it was not all one-way traffic, with Danilo Pereira and Fernandes leaving gaps in midfield that allowed Luxembourg to attack.

Maurice Deville and Gerson Rodrigues both headed narrowly over the crossbar and the hosts deserved credit for restricting Portugal's first-half chances, although they were powerless to stop Fernandes' opener.

The Sporting CP star deftly controlled Silva's weighted pass six minutes from half-time before putting his laces through the ball, hammering a shot into the bottom corner of Moris' net.

Jose Fonte headed just wide early in the second half but it was the hosts who played the better football without creating a clear scoring opportunity.

Fernandes was brought down by Olivier Thill with 13 minutes left, presenting Ronaldo with a free-kick on the edge of the box, but Portugal's all-time leading goalscorer blazed wide with an effort that looked set to sum up his afternoon.

That was until Moris parried Diogo Jota's effort from a Bernardo cross and Ronaldo helped the ball over the line to ensure his name was on the scoresheet.

What does it mean? Santos' men struggle for consistency

Portugal coach Fernando Santos can be pleased with his side's record of five wins, two draws and one defeat in qualifying, but after seeing them hammer Lithuania 6-0 on Thursday this performance offered a reminder of their occasional lack of fluency.

Bernardo copes with the quagmire

While Ronaldo under-hit passes and snatched at chances, Bernardo kept his composure to steer Portugal to victory, never more so than when he floated an exquisite pass to allow Fernandes to score.

Danilo off the pace

Luxembourg were not expected to make a close game of this but they found space in an around Portugal's box that a player of Danilo's quality should have been dominating.

What's next?

European Championship holders Portugal will be among the favourites at Euro 2020 with a coach who knows how to win it at the helm in Santos, while Luxembourg's impressive performance in this game will have done Luc Holtz's chances of remaining in charge no harm.

Cristiano Ronaldo is the world's best player and is always hungry for more, Portugal team-mate Mario Rui said.

Ronaldo inspired Portugal to a 6-0 thrashing of Lithuania in Euro 2020 qualifying on Thursday, scoring a hat-trick in the Group B win.

Mario Rui lauded his 34-year-old team-mate after Portugal moved a step closer to qualifying for next year's showpiece tournament.

"He is the best in the world, never tired of winning, wanting more, and it is this hunger that makes him what he is," the Napoli left-back said, via A Bola.

"We are happy to have him on the team and I hope he will continue to give us joy as he has done so far."

Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva also scored for Portugal, who are second in the group on 14 points, behind Ukraine (19) but ahead of Serbia (13).

Portugal can secure their place when they visit Luxembourg on Sunday and Mario Rui said a tough task awaited his side.

"Mathematically, we know it is not [guaranteed] yet," he said. "We will face a tough team, Luxembourg, we still had that confirmation with the result in Serbia [who won 3-2].

"We know it will be a very difficult game, but our goal is to be at Euro 2020 and we will try to bring all three points to Portugal."

Cristiano Ronaldo's fitness was never a doubt for Portugal coach Fernando Santos as the star forward scored a hat-trick in Thursday's 6-0 victory over Lithuania.

Ronaldo was far from a certain starter for the Euro 2020 qualifier at Estadio Algarve after being substituted in Juventus' last two matches.

Juve boss Maurizio Sarri attributed the early withdrawal against Milan last weekend to a bruised knee, but the 34-year-old played 83 minutes against Lithuania and showed no signs of fatigue.

Asked how Ronaldo was feeling when substituted late on, Santos told RTP: "He's fine. I had no doubt about that, as I said before the match. Other people did, but I didn't have any doubts."

Ronaldo opened the scoring early on from a penalty he won and curled in a second prior to half-time, before completing his hat-trick 25 minutes from the end. 

Portugal midfielder Bruno Fernandes was full of praise for his team-mate, who is now up to 98 goals for the reigning European champions.

"What we have is a very motivated Cristiano, who always gives his best," Fernandes said. "He scored three times, which is normal for him."

Pizzi, Goncalo Paciencia and Bernardo Silva were also on target for Portugal, who can seal second place in Group B if they beat Luxembourg in their final qualifier on Sunday.

Santos felt his side could have scored more than twice in the first half, but was ultimately pleased with the resounding scoreline following last month's 2-1 loss to Ukraine.

"The players stuck to the plan," he said. "We played very well in the first half, with lots of variety to our game and plenty of control. 

"At the break we could have had more goals. But after scoring the fourth we could afford to rest ready for the next game.

"We'll try to beat Luxembourg in the same manner, but we have less than 72 hours to recover so we'll see."

Cristiano Ronaldo scored a hat-trick as Portugal saw off Lithuania 6-0 to get back on track in their bid to qualify for Euro 2020.

Juventus forward Ronaldo was a surprise starter after being substituted before the hour in his club's last Serie A outing against AC Milan, but he showed no signs of fatigue as he reached 98 goals for his country.

Portugal lost 2-1 to Ukraine last month but were comfortable winners at Estadio Algarve on Thursday, with Goncalo Paciencia, Pizzi and Bernardo Silva also on target for the hosts.

The reigning European champions remain second in Group B, a point better off than Serbia - 3-2 winners over Luxembourg - ahead of the final round of qualifying fixtures.

Lithuania lost 5-1 in the reverse fixture and, as was the case in Vilnius two months ago, Ronaldo opened the scoring with a seventh-minute penalty after being caught by Saulius Mikoliunas.

Visiting goalkeeper Ernestas Setkus did well to keep out Paciencia but Ronaldo had doubled his tally with 22 minutes gone, bending in a first-time shot from the edge of the box.

Ronaldo was denied the chance to score a first-half hat-trick by referee Ruddy Buquet, who initially pointed to the spot following a challenge on Ricardo Pereira, only to overturn his decision following a brief discussion with one of his assistants.

However, Fernando Santos' team made certain of the three points seven minutes into the second half through Pizzi's angled shot that went in via both the crossbar and the post.

Paciencia slotted home a fourth goal after Setkus fumbled Silva's cross and the Manchester City playmaker added another to the tally seven minutes later with a low finish.

Ronaldo completed his hat-trick with another curled finish, this time low into the net, though he missed a glorious chance to add another to his tally when firing over from in front of goal.

 

What does it mean? Holders remain on course

Portugal's defeat to Group B winners Ukraine last month - ending an unbeaten run that stretched back to the 2018 World Cup - left them in direct competition with Serbia for second spot.

Santos' men turned on the style in Faro, however, and will now be guaranteed a place in next year's finals with victory in Luxembourg this weekend. 

Ronaldo closing in on another milestone

Ronaldo's consolation goal in Kiev four weeks ago saw him reach 700 for club and country. After his latest international hat-trick, he is now within two of hitting a century for Portugal. So much for a fading force, right?

Setkus slip-up opens floodgates

Lithuania were 3-0 down when Setkus parried a simple cross from Silva, gifting Paciencia a simple finish. The visiting keeper did not look comfortable all game and perhaps could have done better to keep out one of the five other goals, too.

What's next?

Portugal travel to Luxembourg for their final Euro 2020 qualifier on Sunday, while Lithuania - who finish bottom of Group B with just a point - host New Zealand in a friendly on the same day.

Leonardo Bonucci will be glad to see Cristiano Ronaldo back on the pitch for Portugal and is not concerned by the forward's recent tough stretch at Juventus.

Juve superstar Ronaldo has been substituted in his past two club matches, reportedly leaving the stadium before full-time last time out against AC Milan.

Coach Maurizio Sarri attributed the former Real Madrid forward’s early withdrawal down to a bruised knee, yet he is in line to start for Portugal against Lithuania in Euro 2020 qualifying on Thursday.

Club colleague Bonucci is keen not to dwell on the events of recent weeks, though, happy to instead back Ronaldo to return to Turin determined to lead the Bianconeri going forward.

"I like to look forward, not back," Italy international Bonucci told a news conference. "There will be time to talk but now we are with the national teams.

"He will play with Portugal - that means he is physically better and mentally great. And I am here to represent Italy. In Turin, we will talk.

"There are still many games in which we will need the best Ronaldo. I am convinced that, for him, too, the goal is to be better than the past to achieve team and personal goals."

Ronaldo has scored six goals in 14 matches in all competitions for Juve this season.

Sarri's men are a point clear of nearest rivals Inter at the top of Serie A, while they have secured their place in the Champions League knockout stage with two group matches to spare.

Persistent questions about Cristiano Ronaldo saw Portugal coach Fernando Santos reach the end of his tether at his pre-match news conference.

Ronaldo has been substituted in his past two appearances for Juventus and reportedly left the stadium before full-time against AC Milan last time out, as replacement Paulo Dybala struck the winner.

The suggestion Ronaldo was unhappy dominated the agenda as Portugal faced the media on Wednesday, with Ruben Neves insisting his team-mate was "fine".

But Santos was not willing to similarly answer questions on the forward, believing the profile of the player meant too much was being read into the Juventus substitution.

"Everybody wants to talk about Cristiano Ronaldo, everybody wants to give their opinion on Cristiano Ronaldo," he said ahead of the Euro 2020 qualifier against Lithuania.

"Because if this thing [the substitution] was with any other player, nobody would be talking about it. We are only talking about this because it's Cristiano Ronaldo.

"There are millions of players out there and it seems that this only happens to him and maybe another two or three players. To nobody else.

"Cristiano is here, he was called up, he's fine, he'll play, I have no doubts about it. So, for me, there's no issue here."

Santos clearly felt he had made his stance clear, as he replied to the next question on Ronaldo: "Cristiano Ronaldo again? No, sorry, sorry.

"On Cristiano Ronaldo again, I'm talking about Portugal. You are talking to me about Cristiano. Cristiano, no. I won't talk about Cristiano anymore.

"For me, the theme of Cristiano Ronaldo ends here."

Portugal will qualify for next year's European Championship finals if they beat Lithuania while Serbia fail to defeat Luxembourg.

Ruben Neves is not concerned about Cristiano Ronaldo's state of mind for Portugal despite a difficult week at club level with Juventus.

Ronaldo, 34, was substituted in each of Juve's past two matches before the international break and is reported to have left the stadium early when hooked in Sunday's 1-0 win over AC Milan.

Paulo Dybala came on for the Portugal talisman against Milan and went on to score the winner, with Ronaldo visibly annoyed as he headed straight down the tunnel when replaced by the Argentina international.

Juve head coach Maurizio Sarri put Ronaldo's withdrawals down to a bruised knee, though the forward still received criticism for his reaction.

Wojciech Szczesny said Ronaldo's anger was understandable, but he appears to have mellowed since linking up with Portugal.

Speaking ahead of Thursday's Euro 2020 qualifier against Lithuania, Neves said: "Cristiano is fine, had a great training session, as always, and he has a great motivation for the match.

"He's fully prepared for the match. I guess he has no idea of what people are talking about.

"He had a fine training session, as I've already said, so I guess we can expect the Ronaldo we always see in the game tomorrow."

Wolves midfielder Neves has continued to impress this season after catching the eye in the Premier League last term, but it was put to him that he seems more reserved when wearing a Portugal jersey.

He is convinced that is a misconception, however, adamant he feels just as productive for the Selecao as he does for Wolves.

"No, no," Neves said. "We have lots of matches with Wolves. If we compare my number of matches and goals for Wolves and the same for Portugal, the difference won't be big.

"So, I'm focused on helping my national team all the times I'm called up and don't have anything more to say about this."

Cristiano Ronaldo's mother believes an unspecified football "mafia" could prevent the Juventus forward from winning a sixth Ballon d'Or because of his nationality.

Speaking at an event in Portugal, Dolores Aveiro claimed conspiratorial forces are the reason her highly decorated son has not further embellished his long list of achievements.

The former Manchester United and Real Madrid star earned global fame and adulation for his performances in the Premier League and LaLiga but slipped to second in the 2018 Ballon d'Or rankings while midway through his first Serie A campaign.

In September, he finished third in the voting for the title of The Best FIFA Men's Player, behind Lionel Messi and Virgil van Dijk.

Fellow five-time Ballon d'Or winner Messi is the only other player to have claimed the prestigious award on more than three occasions.

"There is a mafia in football, that's the right word to describe it," Dolores Aveiro told Portuguese media.

"If you look at everything that's happened you will realise that it is because of the mafia.

"If Cristiano was Spanish or English, they would not do what they did to him, but since he is Portuguese and from Madeira, well, this happens."

Ronaldo, Juve's record signing, was named Serie A's Most Valuable Player at the end of the 2018-19 season and helped Portugal triumph in the Nations League.

The 34-year-old's mother expects those efforts will be enough for him to beat Barcelona captain Messi to a sixth Ballon d'Or when the 2019 winner is announced.

"I don't know if he will receive it, but I am confident and I think he deserves it," she said, despite fearing he will be the victim of bias.

"If we analyse what he did during the season, he deserves it."

Cristiano Ronaldo should be regarded as the greatest footballer in history after reaching 700 career goals, according to his agent Jorge Mendes.

The five-time Ballon d'Or winner brought up his latest milestone for club and country when he dispatched a second-half penalty against Ukraine on Monday, taking his Portugal tally to 95.

The majority of Ronaldo's goals came during a storied spell with Real Madrid, for whom he scored 450 times after netting 118 for Manchester United.

Although Ronaldo is entering the twilight of his career at the age of 34, Mendes sees no sign of him slowing down at Juventus.

And there is even more still to come, the agent suggests.

"He is the strongest ever. For him, the best is yet to come and will arrive with the Juve jersey," Mendes told Tuttosport.

"The numbers do not lie and they illuminate the overwhelming way in which Cristiano Ronaldo shatters the records, which elevates him to the category of the best player in the history of football and with a big difference compared to the second [best].

"He's in that position for all that he has achieved in the service of the different clubs that he represented, either in England or in Spain or now in Italy, but also with the Portuguese national team.

"And the fact is that, with Cristiano Ronaldo, Portugal has already played in three finals, winning two."

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