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Cristiano Ronaldo swapping Real for Juventus? Not so fast

Cristiano Ronaldo
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 By Tom Kundert

Portugal's mix of youth and experience breeds confidence of success

"I believe we can get to the final and win it, and so do the players," said Portugal manager Fernando Santos moments after announcing the 23-man squad for Euro 2016.

To translate this confidence on to the pitch, Santos must strike the right balance to unleash the youthful exuberance of a set of generously talented rising stars, while drawing on the immense experience of the senior squad members who have spent most of their careers at the very top of the game.

Goalkeepers:

No surprises here. Sporting goalkeeper Rui Patricio has had a fine season and for the third straight tournament remains untouchable as Portugal's No. 1.

Lyon stopper Anthony Lopes provides solid cover, and nobody will sing the national anthem with more gusto than Eduardo.

Defence:

The average age of Portugal's four centre-backs (Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho, Jose Fonte, Bruno Alves) is 34 so in theory this could make them vulnerable to pace through the middle of the pitch. In reality, though, Pepe retains surprising speed for a 33-year-old and Carvalho is still playing to a remarkably consistent standard at 38.

These two are the likely starters and their vast experience, in addition to the fact coach Fernando Santos has the team defending well as a unit, should make Portugal difficult to break down. Southampton's Fonte, who many are calling to start, is an excellent backup if creaking bones or Pepe's propensity for suspensions breaks up the partnership.

All four full-backs chosen have a natural inclination to charge forward, with the more experienced pair of Vieirinha (right) and Eliseu (left) likely to keep their young replacements Cedric Soares and Rafael Guerreiro on the bench.

Midfield:

This is an area of the pitch where Portugal are spoilt for choice with a highly talented group of in-form players offering a broad range of attributes and skills: brute strength, dynamism, creativity, intelligence and stamina.

Given the form he has shown this past year for both club and country, Danilo is likely to get the nod over William Carvalho in the holding role, while Joao Moutinho has been Portugal's best player after Cristiano Ronaldo for the past six years, so it is difficult to drop him despite a mediocre season for Monaco. Joao Mario has blossomed into a truly exceptional playmaker, also making him odds-on to be a starter. 

But plenty of other valid options are open to Santos when it comes to forming his midfield. He could decide to profit from the understanding among club teammates William Carvalho, Adrien and Joao Mario, transplanting the entire Sporting midfield to the national team. The last time a Portugal manager tried that was when Luiz Felipe Scolari played with Porto's Champions League winning midfield at Euro 2004 -- with spectacular results.

And this is all before we mention a possible role for 18-year-old sensation Renato Sanches. The man Bayern Munich paid Benfica €35 million for becomes Portugal's youngest ever player at a European Championship or World Cup.

Ronaldo may be used as a striker during the Euros.

Strikers:

The fact Eder (two goals in 24 appearances for his country) is Portugal's only recognised out-and-out striker tells you all you need to know about the lack of centre-forward options.

The Guinea-Bissau born forward found some form in the second half of the season on loan at Lille, but is likely to start on the bench, along with Rafa Silva.

Since taking over in September 2014, Santos has used a variety of personnel up front, usually comprising a mobile front three like Ronaldo, Nani and Rafa Silva, or front two, constantly roaming, switching positions and interchanging from the flanks to the centre of the box. The system showed signs of bearing fruit with multiple chances created against Bulgaria and Belgium -- only a combination of poor finishing and brilliant goalkeeping prevented a hatful of goals in those two matches.

Santos also switched to a more conventional 4-4-2 at times during qualification, with Ronaldo as a No. 9 and Ricardo Quaresma coming off the bench. It led to some important goals, but this is likely to be Plan B.

Predicted starting XI for opening match vs. Iceland:

Patricio; Vieirinha, Pepe, Ricardo Carvalho, Eliseu; Joao Mario, Danilo, Moutinho; Rafa Silva, Nani, Ronaldo.

Tom Kundert covers Portuguese football for ESPN FC. Twitter: @PortuGoal1.

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