London: Portugal manager Fernando Santos defended his decision to drop Cristiano Ronaldo from the starting line-up for their Nations League opener against Spain, saying he was confident that the forward could make a greater impact off the bench.
Ronaldo, his country’s record goalscorer, came on in the 62nd minute but failed to find the net as a late Ricardo Horta strike salvaged a 1-1 draw for Portugal.
“Cristiano Ronaldo? They often ask why he is a starter. It’s the million-dollar question,” said Santos after Thursday’s result. “I understood that for this game it was better to use the players I used.”
Santos said Ronaldo’s exclusion was not a reflection of his quality, after the 37-year-old enjoyed a strong season for Manchester United, scoring 24 times in all competitions.
“It was a technical and tactical option for this game. It seemed to us the best solution. For the way we wanted to play and approach the game. It has nothing to do with Cristiano’s quality, that’s not even in question,” he said.
“There are moments in the game when you have to think in a different way. We believed that in the second half he could come in and solve the game.”
Alvaro Morata had given Spain the lead in Seville but the hosts failed to take their chances in the second half, with Jordi Alba spurning an opportunity in the dying minutes to snatch a win.
Portugal next play Switzerland on Sunday while Spain travel to Prague to face the Czech Republic.
Horta was making just his second appearance for Portugal — nearly eight years after making his international debut back in 2014.
“This feels good because Spain is a very strong team and we were playing on the road,” Portugal forward Bernardo Silva said. “This is a good result for Portugal.”
Teenager Gavi started for Spain in his hometown and helped set up the opening goal after the 17-year-old Barcelona midfielder stole a pass by Cancelo to start a counterattack. Gavi raced forward and slid a perfectly weighted pass forward for Pablo Sarabia, who squared the ball for the unmarked Morata to score.
Spain’s Carlos Soler had a chance to shoot from the top of the area four minutes later but hit it straight at goalkeeper Diogo Costa.
Rafael Leao almost levelled for Portugal in the 59th but goalkeeper Unai Simon got a foot on his shot to push it wide. Simon, however, could do little to keep out Horta’s strike.
“We failed to finish them off, but we were playing against a great team,’’ Morata said. “We have to keep working hard as always. There is not weak rival in this group.”
In the same group in League A, the Czech Republic beat Switzerland 2-1 at home.
Jan Kutcha put the Czechs ahead in the 11th after Switzerland failed to clear a long throw-in and Kutcha only had to tap in.
Noah Okafor pulled Switzerland back just before halftime with a powerful shot off the underside of the crossbar, but an own goal by Djibril Sow handed the Czechs the win.
The four group winners in League A will qualify for the Final Four in June next year. The group winners in the lower leagues will gain promotion.
Poland beat Wales 2-1 on Wednesday in the inaugural match of this third edition of the Uefa Nations League, which several teams will use as preparation for the World Cup in November.
Erling Haaland helped Norway get off to a good start in League B. The striker, who is set to join Manchester City, scored in the 26th from a pass by Marcus Pedersen to down the Serbs in Belgrade.
Sweden also won 2-0 at Slovenia in the same group.
In a different group in League B, Shon Weissman’s 84th-minute goal earned Israel a 2-2 draw at home against Iceland.
Greece got a first-half goal from Tasos Bakasetas to win 1-0 at Northern Ireland in Group 2 of League C.
Georgia routed Gibraltar 4-0 while Bulgaria was held 1-1 at home by North Macedonia in Group 4 of League C.
Estonia beat San Marino 2-0 in League D.