There’s a party planned at Sporting Lisbon’s 50,000 Jose Alvalade Stadium on Sunday with Portugal facing Iceland and going for a 10 out of 10 win record in European Championship qualification.
The headline act will be Cristiano Ronaldo back at his first club and fresh from scoring in Portugal’s 2-0 win away at Liechtenstein on Thursday. He will be 39 at next summer’s Euros.
But perhaps the bigger story is the incredible record of his current coach Roberto Martinez, who has now gone 38 European and World Cup qualification games with Belgium and Portugal, without losing a single match.
It didn’t look an easy job for Martinez when he replaced Fernando Santos at the start of the year. He was inheriting a team whose morale was shattered by a quarter-final defeat by Morocco at the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
And there would surely be trouble ahead in the dressing room. Ronaldo’s decline would need to be managed. Joao Felix’s sometimes apparently fragile ego would have to be nurtured. And the talents of Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva and Goncalo Ramos would all need to be accommodated.
Roberto Martinez could lead Portugal and Cristiano Ronaldo to a perfect record in qualifying
Martinez had the task of lifting Portugal following their shock World Cup exit to Morocco
The Spaniard has gone 38 European and World Cup qualification games with losing a match
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On Thursday all five started as already qualified Portugal experimented with a bold system that looked like a 3-3-4 at times with Ruben Neves in the middle of a back three.
The 2-0 win made it nine wins from nine qualifiers this year. Perhaps no one should be surprised. Martinez is becoming the gold standard for ‘foreign’ national coaches.
When he took the Portugal job he made it his first task to go and see each of the 26 players who had been in Qatar under Santos. To a man they all still wanted to continue.
His next job was to make sure when they reported for their first group games he would be able to speak to them in Portuguese. He took classes for 90 minutes every day and insisted everyone in the federation speak to him in Portuguese so that he would learn quickly.
He built a strong group of assistants with former Chelsea and Real Madrid defender Ricardo Carvalho coming in as his No 2, and former Portugal international Ricardo is his goalkeeping coach.
Ricardo was the bane of England at Euro 2004 when he saved Darius Vassell’s spot-kick and then scored the winning penalty himself. In 2006 he saved from Frank Lampard, Steven Gerrard and Jamie Carragher as Portugal beat England in a shootout once more.
Martinez also has Jesus Seba, who first worked with him when they went to Wigan together as players in 1995; Inaki Bergara, who worked with him at Swansea and then Everton; Chelsea assistant coach Anthony Barry, who worked with Martinez at Belgium; and head of performance Richard Evans, who was with him at Swansea and Everton.
Martinez brought former Chelsea and Real Madrid star Ricardo Carvalho in as his assistant
The Euro 2024 qualifying campaign has seen Martinez heal a wounded Portugal dressing room
Benfica teenager Joao Neves could be handed his first start for Portugal against Iceland
Bob’s boot room has healed a wounded dressing room and is easing in a new generation to energise the old guard. Benfica’s 19-year-old midfielder Joao Neves could debut on Sunday.
There are no heavyweights in Group J — it also includes Slovakia, Luxembourg, Iceland, Bosnia and Herzegovina and Liechtenstein — but that has not prevented Portugal from having problems in the past. With 34 goals scored and two conceded they have the perfect platform to do even better than Martinez’s Belgium, who finished third in Russia 2018.
If they do then the club calls will come again for a coach who worked miracles at Wigan and Swansea but fell short at Everton before leaving them 12th in the Premier League back in 2016.
Everton wanted him back in 2022. Barcelona considered him when they sacked Ronald Koeman before turning to Xavi. He has never used an international job as a stepping stone — and that’s part of the reason why it’s worked. But his stock will be higher than ever next summer if group form can be transferred to the tournament.
Ukraine duo are heading for a remarkable 2024
Ukraine will be in Leverkusen on Monday to face Italy — and if they win they will be back in Germany at next summer’s Euros as runners-up in Group C behind England.
Artem Dovbyk and Viktor Tsygankov couldn’t be more confident ahead of the match, as the pair sit top of the Spanish league with Catalan minnows Girona.
They now face the prospect of 2024 being the year they reach the European Championship and the Champions League. This summer Dovbyk signed from Dnipro, where he top scored last season, and he has seven goals and four assists in just nine starts.
His understanding with Tsygankov — who arrived six months before from Dynamo Kiev — has been key to Girona losing only once and top scoring in La Liga with 31 goals.
Ukrainian forward Artem Dovbyk, left, has helped minnows Girona to a surprise lead in LaLiga
Dovbyk and Girona team-mate Viktor Tsygankov will be looking to help Ukraine upset Italy
It was from a Tsygankov cross that Dovbyk scored last week to equalise against Rayo Vallecano. They were both involved in the winner too.
There’s a long road ahead if Girona are to make the Champions League, not least because despite relaxing rules on clubs from the same ownership model competing in the same tournament, UEFA would still want them to demonstrate that they have no shared assets — City loanees Savinho and Yan Couto will have to be bought outright.
Reaching the Euros is far less complicated — beat Italy at the BayArena (Russia’s invasion of Ukraine prevents them playing at home) and they will be there.
Bellingham’s the meal deal as he enlists Benzema chef
Jude Bellingham’s ultra-professionalism and attention to detail has been illustrated by him contracting the services of the same chef, Alberto Mastromatteo, who helped transform the diet of Karim Benzema.
Mastromatteo’s company Summumm looks after the physical and mental wellbeing of various top athletes around the world, and his work with Benzema helped him maintain his fitness well into his 30s; winning the Ballon d’Or aged 34.
After a detailed biometrical study of Bellingham at the start of the season, a recommended weekly diet was sent to the Summumm chef who lives in-house with the player and his mother Denise.
The diet is believed to be high in rice, oats, quinoa, fresh vegetables, fish and some lean meat. There is also room for the occasional plate of chips on ‘diet days-off’ designed to allow the athletes not to be overwhelmed with boredom.
No amount of good diet can prevent freak injuries such as Bellingham’s shoulder dislocation, suffered on November 5. But it’s viewed as part of the reason why, when he comes back after the international break, he will soon be at his devastating best again.
Jude Bellingham, right, has recruited the chef who helped to transform Karim Benzema’s diet