Rui Costa led the so-called golden generation and Deco masterminded Luiz Felipe Scolari’s more combative side, but now there is a big hole in the Portugal midfield.
For the first time since they re-emerged as a force in international soccer at Euro 96, Portugal are playing without a recognized playmaker.
However, what was seen as a weakness when they lost their opening match 1-0 to Germany, has been turned to their advantage by passionate coach Paulo Bento.
Bento has come up with an intriguing solution which produced exciting results as Portugal beat Denmark 3-2 and the Netherlands 2-1 to make the last eight of Euro 2012, creating a hatful of chances along the way.
Portugal field Miguel Veloso in front of the back four, with Raul Meireles on his right and Joao Moutinho on his left in a three-man midfield which takes the form of a triangle.
Those three have proved adept at getting the ball swiftly and efficiently to the wings, where Cristiano Ronaldo and Nani, who have the dual roles of creators and finishers, can do the damage. Center forward Helder Postiga completes a three-man attack.
In many ways, the style suits Portugal better than a string-pulling playmaker, who could slow things down in midfield as he seeks to dictate the rhythm of the game.
With five goals in their last two games and Ronaldo clearly determined to shake off his reputation for misfiring in international tournaments, Portugal are starting to suggest they could end their run of near misses at major finals.
Beaten finalists at Euro 2004, semi-finalists four years earlier and World Cup semi-finalists in 2006, Portugal have a remarkably good record for a small country where the local league is overrun by South American imports.
Some credit must go to former coach Scolari, who, during nearly six years in charge, gave Portugal a cutting edge which had been missing from Rui Costa’s golden generation of the mid-1990s.
However, Scolari’s departure after Portugal reached the quarter-finals of Euro 2008 left something of a void and his successor Carlos Queiroz proved an ill-fated choice to replace the Brazilian.
Portugal scraped into the 2010 World Cup after a troubled qualifying campaign and scored in just one of four games on their way to a second-round exit, a very poor performance for a team with an attacking tradition.
They made a disastrous start to Euro 2012 qualifying with a 4-4 home draw against Cyprus followed by defeat to Norway and Queiroz, by now deeply unpopular, was dismissed after being found guilty of obstructing the work of an anti-doping team.
Bento, a defensive midfielder in his playing days, picked up the pieces and, despite clashes which led to the exclusion of defenders Jose Bosingwa and Ricardo Carvalho, Portugal qualified via the back door, beating Bosnia and Herzegovina in a two-leg playoff in which they won the home leg 6-2.
After disappointing warm-up games and amid criticism that their accommodation was too opulent for a team representing an austerity-hit country, Portugal are now back in favor with the critics back home.
“We reached our first target in a brilliant manner, with very good collective organization in the three matches we played,” said Bento, playing down Ronaldo’s outstanding individual performance against the Netherlands. “We have an identity which we have built with our ideas and the players. We reached the quarter-finals, we played well and we are through from a group including the World Cup runners-up and the team that came third.”