Portugal try to put Ronaldo to one side and switch focus on to Ghana

<span>Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA</span>
Photograph: Peter Byrne/PA

Fernando Santos puffed out his cheeks, ran his palm down his face and said a thousand words in one slightly exaggerated expression. To his left, Bruno Fernandes was fielding another question about the storm surrounding a clubless Cristiano Ronaldo, this time wondering whether Manchester United could possibly feel the same when domestic football resumes. Fernandes dealt with it as he had the previous few: his teammate’s departure was a personal issue, one to be respected and after all nothing lasts for ever.

The final word on the matter? It almost certainly was not as Santos, who was far more interested in amplifying the threat of Thursday’s opponents, Ghana, when his turn to answer came around, knew perfectly well. But the veteran coach appreciates the importance of a strong run, as a minimum,and was at pains to minimise the effect of his preening superstar’s enduring soap opera.

“It hasn’t even been discussed,” he said. “The conversation hasn’t come up at any moment, not only from him. If the players are talking about that in their rooms alone, I can’t say. They can do what they want but the important thing is they are absolutely focused and realistic about the challenges they are facing.”

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Taking him at this word, the task in hand will amply occupy Portugal’s thoughts. Santos is eight years in the job but the shine of stunning, if often dour, Euro 2016 triumph has long since faded. Portugal stalled in the last 16 at Russia 2018 and Euro 2020; they needed two playoffs to reach Qatar after losing at home to Serbia and, given the riches at Santos’s disposal, a similar level of underperformance this time is unthinkable.

Not quite able to drag himself away from the Ronaldo morass, Santos set off on a rambling comparison with Portugal’s squad from four years ago, who he said had been unsettled by the number of uncontracted players negotiating future employment. Ten of his players moved clubs that year. It “shifted the focus”, he suggested, but his point was that nothing of the sort has happened this time. Portugal, he said, are as integrated a unit as they have been in years.

Related: Ronaldo wanted to be centre-stage but now has to head for the exit door | Jonathan Wilson

Now they have to show it and the question, if Ronaldo’s off-field travails have been cast aside, is whether they should steer away from him on the pitch, too. It would be ambitious to ask a 37-year-old to spearhead a charge through an entire tournament at the best of times whether you intend to set a high tempo from the front or, as Santos had traditionally preferred, to spring forward on the break. That is doubly the case when he has been largely restricted to cameos all season and there is a sense that, whether in failure or a convincing tilt at glory, this will be the year Portugal finally have to move on.

They have the depth to do it: André Silva has become a competent Bundesliga striker and Bernardo Silva’s wiles need little advertisement. This looks to be the tournament that decisively thrusts Rafael Leão into the global consciousness and João Félix, although struggling with Atlético Madrid, should be able to make hay against most international back lines. Fernandes, meanwhile, thrives on exploiting the movement this quartet offer and Santos may find Portugal’s hopes of going far depend on discovering a workable balance in attack.

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Realistically, they will kick off with Ronaldo front and centre but it was striking to hear Santos and Fernandes observe a change they have seen in the early group games. They were fresh from watching the first half of Morocco against Croatia; a mediocre affair that was nonetheless played at a fair pace and they made the point that a mid-season tournament means players are fitter, match sharp and not as weary as at the end of a domestic campaign. They made the parallel with last summer’s European Championship, saying the early fixtures then were noticeably more low-key.

Does that add to the pressure on Ronaldo to keep up the pace? Portugal certainly need to better their inconsistent group stage showings from last year, when they scraped through in third place by dint of a win over Hungary. No such fallback is available this time: Uruguay will run them close for first place in Group H and a languid display against Ghana, whose speed in transitions was noted by Santos, would jeopardise their claim to the top two.

Cristiano Ronaldo has been banned for two matches and handed a £50,000 fine by the Football Association for hitting a mobile phone out of a fan's hand at Everton. The 37-year-old, who is now a free agent following his release from Manchester United on Tuesday, had the altercation with the 14-year-old boy after a 1-0 defeat at Goodison Park on 9 April, and was cautioned by Merseyside Police. The FA also charged the Portugal forward with improper conduct and an independent panel has handed down a suspension and hefty fine. The ban will be transferred when Ronaldo joins a new club in any country, but does not count in the World Cup. PA Media

Then again, things may equally move in a more appealing direction. Santos was asked whether Portugal could go all the way. “I have such a dream and it’s shared by all my players,” he said. “We have a vision and I believe we have the capacity to fight. We’re realistic but also very hopeful and confident and know we have a high quality team.”

Fernandes was asked about the clip when, upon joining up with the squad, he had given Ronaldo’s welcome short shrift. Ronaldo had mocked his late arrival and Fernandes said it was no big deal: he was frazzled from a delayed flight and simply had not seen the funny side. “He could laugh, I couldn’t,” Fernandes said.

A fast start against Ghana is needed to improve their collective humour.