Euro 2016 Final: France and Portugal take contrasting paths to set up summit clash
Hosts France and the Cristiano Ronaldo-led Portugal will clash for the title of ‘Champions of Europe’ in the finals on Sunday, bringing the curtains down on the UEFA Euro 2016 football championship. The month-long tournament saw a total of 24 European nations grind it out across 50 matches which so far has produced 107 goals at over two goals per match.
It has been a festival of high-quality football with its usual mix of shocks, surprises and above all, a melting pot for some of the best talents in the world of football to exhibit what they are capable of. The fact that both the finalists took completely contrasting paths en route to the summit clash, bears ample testimony to the fact that all aspects of international football have been amply showcased in this edition of Euro.
France were oozing talent and flair from the get go. Didier Deschamps, the French coach and captain of France’s 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 winning side, will agree that he has been fortunate enough to have this bunch of French footballers at his disposal.
That is not to take away from the fact that he has been able to channelize the energies of some of his key players, who are otherwise temperamental, in a manner that has reaped rich dividends for France.
Contrary to popular belief, the coach’s job becomes even harder when so much talent is available to him. To prioritise teamplay over individual brilliance becomes paramount. The Real Madrid Galacticos side in the recent past is a good example of this challenge and so was the dream Brazil side of the ’82 World Cup.
In fact, Deschamps’ presence as coach is a key factor for the success of this French side, given that his own World Cup winning team of ’98 was no less endowed with attacking, explosive talent. The likes of Zidane, Henry, Petit, Pires, Lizarazu, Vieira, Dessaily come to mind instantly.
This side have the accomplished Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna in defence, is led by the mercurial Paul Pogba in midfield and the attack strike force of Dimitri Payet, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud have been a revelation.
Steeped in belief and searching for the first opportunity to attack has been a hallmark of the side which has helped them convincingly win five of their six matches thus far, blasting 13 goals past their hapless opponents and conceding just four, including two in a high-scoring rout of Iceland.
Against relative minnows Albania in their second match of the group stages, when talent was not proving enough to break a goalless deadlock till the 89th minute, it was their belief which was eventually reflected in the 2-0 score line.
And the professional manner and consummate ease with which they disposed off World Champions Germany in the semis was a treat to watch. It will take a lot and something extraordinarily special to take the cup away from this team now.
Portugal, on the other hand, have given the impression of being nervous nuts throughout the tournament, except in the semi-finals against Wales, where it finally looked they felt like they belonged at this level and had a reputation to defend. That reputation goes back exactly 50 years when the legendary Eusebio took the 1966 World Cup played in and won by England, by storm.
The Portuguese then had defeated the mighty Brazil in the group stages and Eusébio had finished highest scorer with nine goals, with Portugal finishing third, their best ever World Cup performance. It also goes back to their Golden Generation led by Luis Figo, Nuno Gomez and the likes which finished second in Euro 2004 and fourth in the 2006 World Cup.
Given such credentials, it was disheartening to see Portugal struggle at the Euro 2016 even against teams like Iceland and Austria (no disrespect to any of them). Till their semi-finals against Wales, Portugal had not won a single match in 90 minutes. They actually played three draws in their group stage and qualified for the knockout rounds only as a lucky loser.
They huffed and puffed in majority of the extra-time against Croatia before finally getting a winner and the quarter-finals against Poland had to be decided on penalties. However, to look at it positively, they can take heart from a similar run by Italy to win the 2006 World Cup in South Africa, where peaking at the right time, might just be the best thing to do.
The Portuguese captain, their highest ever scorer and talisman Cristiano Ronaldo cannot be blamed much either. The Real Madrid star has not only scored three goals out of the just eight that Portugal have managed to score thus far, but also has an equal number of assists to his name.
He has been taking a lot of responsibility in matches, playing deep when starved of supply and being very unselfish in his style of play as well.
The other problem Portugal have is that nobody has been able to get that prolific goal-scoring touch going in the tournament. Ronaldo and Nani have three goals each. But, for example, Ronaldo got two in one game of the group stages and then one in the semi-finals.
By contrast, France has Antoine Griezmann in prolific touch with six goals which almost assures him of the tournament’s top goal scorer prize. Payet and Giroud, his attacking partners also have three each and Paul Pogba has also managed to get onto the score sheet.
Whoever wins, it certainly in all aspects, seems to be a match-up between a team which has everything and the other who have nothing. For example, France has won everything there is to be won in World Football- the World Cup, the Confederations Cup and the Euro. Portugal haven’t won any of those.
France have momentum and confidence going. Portugal do not. France have always won as hosts and they are the hosts this time as well. So Portugal has neither form nor history nor statistics going for them. But, as they say, there always is a first time. May the best team win!