Portugal: From champs to chumps
Without talisman Ronaldo, Portugal look lost and bereft of ideas
(Breel Embolo 24, Admir Mehmedi 30)
From the euphoria of Euro 2016, Portugal have been delivered a rude awakening.
The superstitious will consider another opening qualifying defeat as a positive omen for their World Cup prospects - the reality is that it signalled how their descent back to mortality has begun in earnest, barely two months on from the jubilation of Paris.
Others have also stumbled from their lofty pedestal, notably Italy in the weeks which followed their own 2006 coronation at the World Cup, but A Selecao threaten to fall harder than Marcello Lippi's erstwhile world champions and most likely in a quicker timeframe.
On the back of an unbeaten 14-game run, culminating in events at the Stade de France in July, Fernando Santos had been considered to be his country's golden ticket back to the pinnacle of international football, following decades in the wilderness as nearly men.
But the old heads who steered Portugal to a surprise victory at Euro 2016 are unlikely be offering a repeat performance in the prelude to Russia.
More than a fractious relationship with the Hellenic Football Federation unites Santos and Claudio Ranieri - two of Greece's most recent former coaches have ensured that 2016 will go down in history as the year of the footballing underdogs.
Yet, like Leicester City's own remarkable triumph, Portugal's sustained success must be aligned to their own powers of regeneration.
Falling at the first hurdle of their planned procession yesterday morning (Singapore time) provided that stark warning to Santos.
Santos, to his credit, had attempted to address the current imbalance issues by electing for a balance of youth and seniority in Basel - an increasingly unhappy hunting ground for his country - that carried an average age of 23.
There was, however, still no escaping the fact that it is the elder statesmen who continue to dominate proceedings - four players who started at St Jakob-Park were far closer to the wrong side of 30 than they currently remain on the right of it.
By the end, a 33-year-old Pepe found himself joined by another player heading into the twilight of his career in Ricardo Quaresma, 34.
Circumstances undeniably forced Santos' hand, not least with the absence of Renato Sanches and Andre Gomes.
Their burgeoning talent looks set to be supplemented by the emergence of Andre Silva, whose second-half cameo offered promising signs for Portugal's long-term future, but the shortcomings without either the pair or Cristiano Ronaldo to call upon were undeniable.
Ronaldo's sister had bewilderingly likened his tournament-ending injury in Paris to the crucifixion of Jesus Christ.
Any hopes that statement lacked any credence was torn apart after witnessing Portugal appear increasingly lost without their captain.
Worryingly, leadership is not the only area where Ronaldo has, at 31, been forced to overcompensate for Portugal.
Without him, they lacked a much-needed spark to drive them forward against Switzerland, previously their conquerors at Euro 2008.
It was evident in a toothless display in attack which saw Eder, their extra-time hero against France, appearing listless and often anonymous despite sustained spells of pressure.
Luis Nani, too, also did little to suggest that greater success lay on the horizon in their post-Euro 2016 state; with a cannoned header off the crossbar in the closing stages constituting his sole contribution as an underwhelming stand-in for Ronaldo.
With 13 months remaining and a group saturated with traditionally lesser competing nations, such as Latvia, Andorra and the Faroe Islands, Portugal still have more than a fighting chance of reaching the World Cup Finals in two years.
Ronaldo is likely to be still around should they reach Russia, but his role will be restricted to a bit-part, rather than the unrealistic expectancy on him to deliver.
The Real Madrid talisman is no stranger to a changing of the international guard, having taken the baton from Luis Figo after he bowed out at the 2006 World Cup.
He will no doubt embrace the chance to pass the baton on to the next generation.
That process, however, will have to become an immediate priority rather than the current status quo simply being restored upon his long-awaited return to action.
"We started the game well. We dominated the first 15, 20 minutes but, then, we were dazzled by Switzerland. afterwards, we stepped back and allowed them to win individual battles. The European championship has to be forgotten. We were not as strong as we usually are. We are in qualifying and that cannot happen."
— Coach Fernando Santos says Portugal must forget their Euro 2016 triumph if they are to have a successful qualifying campaign for the 2018 World Cup
- Andorra 0 Latvia 1
- Faroe Islands 0 Hungary 0