Portuguese delight in Paris

It was perhaps fitting that in a tournament that has left many fans frustrated and bored with the quality of football on show, that the Euro 2016 final turned out to be a pretty drab and uninspiring game. Yet the nature of finals football means that there must be a winner, and with a hungry young French team looking to deliver their first piece of silverware in 18 years, many neutrals had backed Didier Deschamp’s men to get the job done against a Portuguese side who had somewhat stumbled through the competition up until now and were still looking to win their first major trophy at international level.

Amidst all the hysteria that inevitably comes at a major sports tournament where the hosts make it all the way to the final, it would have come as no surprise that the French came roaring out of the blocks to start with. Having produced a man-of-the-match display to lead his country to the final in Paris, much was expected of Portugal skipper Cristiano Ronaldo as he went looking to add the Henri Delaunay trophy to his impressive trophy cabinet. However, Portugal’s chances took a severe blow as early as the 25th minute when following a crude-looking challenge from Dimitri Payet, Ronaldo went down in agony clutching his knee. Although Portugal’s talisman returned to the pitch following treatment on the side-lines his return to the field was brief as after trying in vain to carry on he was substituted. In 2004, an 18-year-old Ronaldo broke down in tears on the pitch following Portugal’s surprise final defeat to Greece in his homeland, and 12 years later it was a similar story for the Real Madrid galactico, as tears strolled down his face as he left the pitch. In a first-half dominated by the hosts, chances came and went with France’s semi-final hero Antoine Griezmann forcing a good save early on from Rui Patricio in the Portugal goal. Following that it was the turn of Newcastle’s Moussa Sissoko to test out Patricio as he forced another save from the Portuguese keeper from close range. Having soaked up all the French pressure in the first half, it was job well done for the Portugal defence, although they still needed more from their attackers. The second-half once again took shape just like the first-half with France dominating and Portugal happy to defend and hit their opponents on the counter-attack. Goalkeeper Patricio continued to excel in goal as he saved from Giroud and Sissoko, but the Sporting Lisbon man was helpless when Antoine Griezmann connected with Kingsley Coman’s cross, although thankfully for Portugal, Griezmann mistimed his jump as the ball skidded off his head and went wide of goal. By now the tension was building in the crowd with home fans starting to grow agitated, and hearts were in mouths when Nani’s cross-shot was tipped away from goal by Hugo Lloris, before the Tottenham keeper got back to his feet to save the follow-up from Quaresma. At this point, with the game drifting towards extra-time, Portugal once again reverted to type and let the French come at them, which looked to be a mistake when substitute Andre-Pierre Gignac turned Pepe in the box before hitting the ball between Patricio’s legs only to see his effort hit the post. With nerves now beginning to show on both sides, chances were at a premium in extra-time and it was only after the half-time interval that the game came to life. Having won a free-kick just on the edge of the French box, it looked for all money that Quaresma would step up to test Lloris but instead full-back Raphael Guerreiro hit a near perfect free-kick which sailed above the wall before dipping, only for the crossbar to come to Lloris’ rescue. A warning sign for the hosts and one which was not heeded. Just a few minutes later the ball came to Portuguese substitute Eder. With his back to goal and a defender wrestling him for the ball, the big striker pushed the defender off before unleashing the sweetest of strikes from 25 yards out which proved too quick for Lloris as the ball nestled into the back of the net. France were shell-shocked. Home supporters and most neutrals had been so confident that they would get the job done against a side that many had down as a limited one-man team. Yet with just over ten minutes to play they were losing in their back yard. While time still seemed to be on their side, the French players seemed in shock as they struggled to break down the resolute Portuguese defence, before Mark Clattenburg blew the final whistle to confirm Portugal as 2016 European Champions.

It wasn’t supposed to end like this for the hosts. Overwhelming favourites going into the match, having been most people’s tip to win the tournament from the start, this French team failed to turn up when it mattered most. In a team containing star players such as Payet, Pogba and Griezmann, it was perhaps ironic that the star man in Sunday’s final was a player who may well be plying his trade in the second-tier of English football next season. Moussa Sissoko was a surprise starter for many, but given his solid performance against the Germans in the semi-final, the midfielder deserved his place and repaid Deschamp’s faith with a performance full of energy and attacking verve. Finals are usually cagey affairs and it isn’t unusual to see players become overwhelmed by the pressure. There are two ways to win major finals, you either go out to win the match, or try your hardest not to lose it. On Sunday Sissoko took the game by the scruff of the neck and went out to win, showing a lot more bottle than his more illustrious team-mates such as Pogba who seemed inhibited by the occasion. Even Griezmann and Payet – two of the star players of the championship – seemed to snatch at chances and try forcing things. Juventus midfielder Pogba could be on the verge of a world-record £100 million move to Manchester United, yet in the final he produced arguably his worst display of a tournament where he has failed to live up to expectations given that he was touted as the star-man for the hosts going into the tournament. The truth is that although France probably deserved their place in the final, at no point throughout the tournament did they look convincing winners. By the complete same logic the same could be said for Portugal, who at times looked even less convincing than the hosts. Yet France came into this tournament with most people expecting this talented group of players to deliver on their potential following an impressive World Cup performance in Brazil. Yet they needed late goals from Payet and Griezmann to get through the limited opposition of Romania and Albania. Having already sealed qualification, a drab 0-0 draw against a good Switzerland side was somewhat predictable, and a last-16 tie against a plucky-looking Republic of Ireland looked favourable. However much like their other performances in the tournament, they once again made hard work of it going a goal down early on before Griezmann came to the rescue with a second-half brace to seal a narrow 2-1 win against a side who played the final 25 minutes with ten men. Having stumbled through the competition, the hosts seemed to finally come to the party with a convincing 5-2 win against Iceland in the quarters with many of their star men impressing throughout. Once again a strong collective effort against the much-fancied Germans saw the hosts through to the final, in a semi-final where the world champions will have been kicking themselves at not taking advantage of their possession and chances. At this point all was set up for the French to go and claim the trophy. Having finally seemed to click as a team in their previous two matches, everything was there for the likes of Pogba and Griezmann to go and deliver the goods against a Portugal side who had surprised many in making it to the final. However their performance in Paris summed up their tournament as a group of world-class individuals failed to function effectively as a team with a few fleeting moments of individual class threatening to open up the opposition.

In comparison, Portugal lost their talisman early on, yet made up for this with their collective team spirit and cohesion making for an extremely effective and resilient team. Ultimately it was a moment of brilliance from the unlikely hero of Eder that won the trophy for Fernando Santos’ men but it was the team performance in withstanding the constant French pressure which kept them in the game up to that point with Pepe and Jose Fonte expertly protecting Rui Patricio’s goal, who was also reliable when called upon to make crucial saves. Having stumbled through a relatively easy-looking group containing Hungary, Iceland and Austria with three draws, Portugal looked far from possible champions going into the knockout stages. Having qualified in 3rd place, the expanded format of this year’s championship meant they just about did enough to qualify where in previous tournaments they would be heading home. The fact that Portugal did go on to win the tournament from this stage could be seen as somewhat embarrassing for UEFA, with many believing the negative football seen in the group stages was due to many teams looking to scrape through with as few as points as possible. Despite this, Fernando Santos’ side stepped up to the plate when they reached the knockout stages as they beat some of the best teams in this year’s tournament in what was a very tricky route to success. In the last 16 they overcame an exciting Croatia side – who had beaten defending champions Spain in the group stages – winning a wretched game of football thanks to a late winner in extra-time from Quaresma. In the quarter-finals, it was Poland standing in their way. Having missed some good chances to beat Germany in the group stages in a 0-0 draw and conceding just one goal on their route to the quarters, Robert Lewandowski and co. were not to be underestimated. After a tense match which saw Renato Sanches’ powerful strike cancel out Lewandowski’s early opener, the game inevitably went to penalties where Poland’s Jakub Blaszczykowski had his effort saved from Rui Patricio before Quaresma stepped up to score the winning spot-kick. Going into the semi-finals Portugal had incredibly still failed win any of their five matches in 90 minutes, and Ronaldo’s men were desperate to end that run against a Wales side who had thrilled everyone with their surprise run. However with Wales playing in their first ever semi-final at a major tournament, Portugal’s extra experience and nous told as they produced a tactical master-class, frustrating the Welsh attack before star-man Ronaldo stole the show in the second-half with a goal and assist in the space of five minutes to help take the game away from the Welsh. Following his wonderful semi-final display much was expected of Ronaldo in the final, yet having failed to really light up the tournament, it was once again his team-mates who produced the goods as they stepped out of his shadow to show what as strong team they are with another mightily effective team performance seeing them edge over the line.

Overall it was fitting that a team like Portugal won the tournament. Following an exciting World Cup in 2014, this was not a championships that will live long in the memory for the neutrals. Some of the most exciting teams in the tournament such as Spain, Croatia and Belgium exited early one, with more effective teams such as Italy, Portugal and Wales reminding them that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts. As for games, well there weren’t that many memorable matches to remember from the tournament. There was the intriguing tactical battle between Italy and Germany culminating in that comical shoot-out, or Wales’ thrilling end-to-end quarter-final battle with Belgium, but apart from that many games were tense affairs with few goals, owing much to the defensive strengths of many of the teams involved. Sides like Germany and Italy may be kicking themselves at their exits as both sides may have backed themselves to beat this Portugal side in a final, yet the final was a good match-up on paper with the maverick stars of France coming up against the cohesive team unit of Portugal. The fact that Ronaldo’s absence did not effect the Portuguese players proved that they are not a one-man team and having beaten some tricky opposition in some tight matches, Portugal deserved their title.

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