By Richard Martin
SEVILLE (Reuters) - Portugal set out to defend their European Championship title with a far better squad than five years ago in France but this time they ultimately proved less adept at chasing games than grinding out results.
Fernando Santos' side bowed out of the tournament earlier than they would have liked in losing 1-0 to Belgium in the last-16 but they did not go out quietly, peppering Thibaut Courtois' goal with shots until the end and hitting the post.
Yet they lacked a cutting edge which might have disappointed fans given the assortment of world stars they had on the pitch, including Manchester United talisman Bruno Fernandes, 126-million-euro man Joao Felix and Cristiano Ronaldo.
As in their 4-2 defeat to Germany in the group stage, they were incapable of finding their way back into the game and mainly resorted to hopeful long-range efforts, only troubling Courtois a couple of times despite having 23 shots.
Critics can certainly point the finger at Santos, a reactive coach who built his reputation in international football by helping Greece punch above their weight.
After leading Portugal to their first major trophy with often cagey tactics and astute game management, his side never really took a step forward and looked uncomfortable once they were no longer the underdogs.
They also seemed to lack the unity and work rate of their predecessors, as Santos alluded to after the heavy defeat to Germany when he remarked: "That was not the Portugal we all know".
Pepe, one of the few surviving members of the Euro 2016 side, latched on to a similar theme when he said: "We need to be what we have always been, a combative team which plays with solidarity".
In the Euro 2020 group stage alone, Portugal conceded more goals than in their victorious Euro 2016 campaign.
But to be fair to Santos, his side was given a far harder draw this time around, meeting the last two world champions in France and Germany in Group F in addition to gritty Hungary.
They could only finish third and had to face Belgium, who 2018 World Cup semi-finalists and ranked number one in the world.
Their unforgiving path contrasted with 2016, when they met Iceland, Austria and Hungary in their group and then faced Poland, Croatia and Wales in the knockout stage before riding their luck in the final to beat hosts France 1-0 in extra-time.
Their winning goal in Paris was a hit-and-hope shot from Eder and five years on in Seville, the shoe was on the other foot as Thorgan Hazard's piledriver proved the difference, ending Portugal's reign as European champions.
Many of the players who fell short here will get another chance at next year's World Cup in Qatar and Santos will hope they will be wiser from the experience and better equipped to break down teams as good as them.
(Reporting by Richard Martin; Editing by Stephen Coates)