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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 21 November 2018

Portugal v Italy - a tale of two teams in transition, with plenty of players already confronting important career crossroads

No Ronaldo for the hosts, no Buffon for Italy as Uefa Nations League match offers a platform for up-and-comers on both sides to stake their international credentials
The likes of Renato Sanches, front left, have a chance to reboot their careers in Portugal colours after fading from the spotlight since the team's Euro 2016 triumph. EPA

Between them, Gigi Buffon and Cristiano Ronaldo are the owners of a combined 330 international caps. That’s quite a hole to fill for the two countries who meet in Lisbon without their most noted 21st century players and long-term captains.

Italy, under new management, have started their post-Buffon era with many unanswered questions; Portugal’s most pressing question concerns how often and when they can rely on Ronaldo again.

The holder of Ballon d’Or wanted this month free of commitments to his country as he settles into a new phase of his club career, at the Juventus Buffon has just left, although his compatriots have noted, with relief, his vocal support of the Portuguese Selecao as they begin their Uefa Nations League campaign, knowing a win over the Italians could thrust them to the top of their League A mini-league. That would be a fillip. Portugal are the reigning European champions, but have not been playing like it. Their last 10 matches included just three victories, one of them the 1-0 win over Morocco at a World Cup that ended at the last-16 stage with defeat to Uruguay.

Even without uncertainties over Ronaldo's international future, this is a Portugal in transition. Fernando Santos’ squad, who drew 1-1 with Croatia last Friday in a friendly, has a number of players confronting important career crossroads. Many of those earmarked for the post-Ronaldo era, whenever that arrives, have made summer transfers they hope will advance their development.

There’s William Carvalho, the commanding central midfielder, who has been offered numerous chances to move abroad and leave Lisbon’s Sporting ever since he was a teenager but only now, at 26, has he made the jump, to Real Betis in Spain. There's Andre Silva, who last month joined Sevilla on loan. Silva, 22, is a centre-forward in need of a reboot. He joined AC Milan a year ago, and although he had some good nights wearing Milan's stripes in the Europa League, his yield of two goals from 24 Serie A outings were a let-down after his €38 million (Dh162m) move. But Silva has time on his side and has started his Spanish Liga stint in style, with a hat-trick on his Sevilla league debut. He will not lack for motivation if he is asked to lead the line against Italy.

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Read more:

Analysis: Nations League defeat to Spain highlights England's shortcomings

Richard Jolly: Southgate's England challenge: to ensure a rise is not followed by a fall

Ian Hawkey: Uefa Nations League - a welcome addition or calendar clutter?

Explainer: the Uefa Nations League, how it works and fixtures in UAE time

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The full-back Joao Cancelo, 24, moved this summer, too, to Juventus from Valencia, the club the pacey striker Goncalo Guedes, 21, has now joined permanently after a year on loan from Paris Saint-Germain. The winger Gelson Martins, 23, has meanwhile left troubled Sporting for Atletico Madrid, while the gifted 21-year-old midfielder Ruben Neves, who won the Championship with Wolverhampton Wanderers last May is now in the Premier League, looking more than comfortable in that elite company. Neves, forgiven by Santos for the error that led to Croatia’s goal last week, can look forward to a first competitive cap against Italy.

Santos talks of these footballers as part of a “a new cycle” and elected to prioritise the up-and-comings for his first Nations League fixtures, leaving out experienced men such as Joao Moutinho, now a member of the large Lusophone community at Wolves, and Ricardo Quaresma. Most intriguingly, he also called up Renato Sanches, the midfielder who starred as a teenager through Portugal’s run to victory in France at Euro 2016 but whose reputation has plunged since. Bayern Munich paid Benfica an initial €35m, which could rise to €80m with objectives, for Sanches two years ago. Suffice to say none of those objectives have been met.

Jorginho, centre, scored Italy's only goal, from the penalty spot, in their Nations League Group A opener against Poland. Reuters

Surplus in Munich, Sanches had a very poor season loaned out Swansea City in 2017/18 and has not featured at all for Bayern so far this season. But he did come on as a substitute for Portugal against Croatia and has a chance of playing his first competitive international minutes for 22 months against Italy at the Stadio da Luz.

A festival of goals should probably not be anticipated. There’s no Ronaldo, and for all the pace offered by Martins and RB Leipzig's Bruma, Portugal looked a little blunt up front against Croatia, needing defender Pepe, winning his 100th cap, to register their goal.

Roberto Mancini’s Italy, meanwhile, have endured criticism for a sluggish display on their Nations League bow, a 1-1 draw at home to Poland, their goal coming from a Jorginho penalty. Mario Balotelli’s return to competitive international football was not a success. He is carrying a muscular problem, it has emerged, and is doubtful for Portugal.