All roads lead to Paris! After a month of football which has left many fans divided on the new format of the European Championships, hosts France meet Portugal in the final. Following the horrific terrorist attacks of last November, it is fitting that this young French team have made it all the way to the final, and the way that the French people have got behind Didier Deschamp’s men has been truly uplifting and inspirational. Standing in their way however is a Portugal side that have slowly but surely settled into the tournament, improving with every game and with their talismanic skipper Cristiano Ronaldo determined to avenge the final defeat of 2004, it will not be an easy task for the hosts in what should be an exciting clash to finish the tournament.
After a slow but steady progress through a relatively easy group, France have stepped it up a gear in the knockout stages, with a number of ruthless performances full of attacking endeavour and defensive resilience. In the group stages it was Dimitri Payet who was the star, with the West Ham midfielder scoring crucial goals against both Romania and Albania to help his nation get off to a winning start in their opening two matches. Having already qualified going into their final group game against Switzerland it was perhaps no surprise that the game never seemed to come to light, with the man of the moment Payet coming closest to scoring in a drab goalless draw. At this point going into the knockout stages, France looked solid if not spectacular with their defence proving surprisingly more effective than their attack despite a wealth of attacking options. With the likes of Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann yet to really spark, much was expected of these players as the tournament reached a critical stage. However if it was the defence that were the stars in the group stages, the attack have taken over in the knockout stages. Having conceded an early penalty to the Republic of Ireland, the hosts were staring down the barrel at half-time before a virtuoso second-half display from Atletico forward Griezmann saw France’s no.7 score twice to carry his side through to the quarter-finals. Coming up against England’s conquerors Iceland, the French produced their best display of the tournament running in a 5-2 win. First-half goals from Giroud, Pogba, Payet and Griezmann saw them go into half-time with a convincing lead before the Icelandics hit back with two goals of their own – Giroud scoring his second of the night in between. Having delivered a real statement of intent in the quarter-final, France would have to prove their class once again in the semi-finals as they came up against world champions Germany who looked hungry to add a European title to their world crown. Having shown all of their attacking intent in the quarters it was their defence which came to the fore in the first-half of the semi as Germany dominated proceedings without creating too many chances. On the stroke of half-time they were punished for this as Bastian Schweinsteiger’s handball led to a penalty converted by France’s star player Griezmann. A tense second-half followed before Griezmann sent the home fans delirious with a second goal following good work by Pogba out wide, to seal the win and confirm France’s place in the final.
Portugal on the other hand have done it the hard way. Having somehow squeezed through a group containing Iceland, Austria and Hungary in 3rd place with three draws, Ronaldo’s men came up against an impressive-looking Croatia side – who had just beaten reigning European champions Spain – in the last-16. In what will surely go down as the worst game in the tournament, both sides toiled in front of goal before substitute Quaresma came off the bench for Portugal to score the decisive goal three minutes from the end of extra-time. The fact that Quaresma scored from a rebound which proved to be the only shot on target in the whole match kind of told the story. In the quarter-finals, Fernando Santos’ men came up against a strong Poland side who had held Germany to a goalless draw in the group stages. After going behind to an early Robert Lewandowski goal, the Portuguese hit back with a thunderous strike from teenager Renato Sanches. With the game evenly poised throughout it was perhaps inevitable that the match would go all the way to penalties, and it was there that Portugal prevailed as Quaresma fired home the winning spot-kick after Jakub Blaszczykowski’s effort was saved by Rui Patricio. In the semi-finals, it was that man Ronaldo who stepped up. After a poor tournament by his own high standards which saw him score just two goals from five matches, the Real Madrid superstar proved the difference against Wales as his headed goal and assist for Nani saw Portugal through in a hard-fought 2-0 win.
On paper it looks like a match-up between the two superstars, Griezmann v Ronaldo. However with a number of other good attacking players such as Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet, Nani and Renato Sanches on display at the Stade de France, both sides will be confident that they can cause problems going forward for the opposition. Defensively both sides have proven strong with Portugal in particular looking hard to beat at the back. An exciting looking match-up, France go into the game as worthy favourites given their current form and route to the final, but Portugal will prove to be tricky opposition and with Ronaldo desperate to finish his glittering career with an international trophy do not write off Santos’ side from causing an upset.