Having overcome Wales and Germany in their respective semi-finals, Portugal and France will now be preparing to face off for the right to be crowned the champions of Europe. Although both now at the same stage, the two nations have taken very different paths to reach this destination.
For France, entering the tournament as hosts and favourites almost proved too much pressure for them to handle, before Dimitri Payet riffled home late on to secure all three points against Romania on matchday 1. The second game saw both Griezmann and Pogba benched in what was seen as punishment for their uninspiring initial performances. The move backfired, however, as manager Didier Deschamps was forced to call on both mid-way through the second half to inject life into an abject display. The substitutes combined to score the first goal and Payet grabbed a second goal to round off another win. The final group game was a damp squid of a football match, a forgettable 0-0 draw with Switzerland. France proceeded to brush aside the Republic of Ireland in the last 16 despite conceding in the first few moments of the game. The quarter finals saw a demolition of the tournament’s surprise package Iceland, which then set up a tense clash with Germany in the semis. Germany dominated possession for large periods of the game but lacked any cutting edge in the absence of a recognised striker. France converted a dodgy penalty on the stroke of half-time and then doubled their lead when Griezmann converted his second.
Portugal, on the other hand, has reached the final despite having only won one game in regulation time this championship. A 1-1 draw with Iceland was followed by a 0-0 draw with Austria – with Ronaldo missing a penalty in the latter periods. With no team in the group particularly outstanding, Portugal went into their final group game knowing that they really needed to win to solidify their place in the last-16. Instead, they decided that consistency was the real key and played out another draw with Hungary. There were positives to take out of this game, though; with Ronaldo scoring twice and seemingly playing himself out of the slump in form he had experienced in the first two games.
Finishing third meant that their last-16 match was against an in-form Croatia team that were fresh from beating the holders Spain. Shock, the match ended 0-0, with Quaresma tapping home in extra time to seal a quarter-final place. Poland was next up, a team that many had tipped as dark horses in the tournament. Shock, the match ended 0-0 and went the distance to penalty kicks. Man of the moment Quaresma converted his penalty and set up a semi-final meet with Wales. Billed as the “Battle of the Galacticos”, many favoured Wales to overcome Portugal despite them being as far as they’d ever been in a major tournament. It wasn’t to be, as both Nani and Ronaldo struck in the second half to earn their first victory of the tournament in 90 minutes and complete their route to their second major tournament final.
There’s no hiding the fact that without Ronaldo, Portugal is a bang average side. Indeed even with Ronaldo, their performances really do not warrant a European Championships Finals appearance. Despite having talented players such as Nani, Joao Mario, Joao Moutinho and up and coming star Renato Sanchez, these players have done relatively little to inspire Portugal. However, it would be silly to underestimate or discount a side that boasts arguably the greatest goal scorer of all time. Ronaldo’s bullet header against Wales and his audacious flick against Hungary have been little flashes of brilliance sprinkled over a tournament of mediocrity by his astronomical standards. His ability to get a goal out of nothing though will keep France’s backline on edge throughout the game, regardless of how quiet he is during the game.
France has a wealth of options that not many international teams can match. In Griezmann, Pogba and Payet they have interchangeable options that are all capable of getting a goal at any stage of any game. Added to this is the fact that their main target man, Giroud, seems to find his best form when playing for the national team, netting 10 times in his last 10 appearances. Tournament top scorer Griezmann looks increasingly dangerous with every passing game, and in front of a home crowd, it’s difficult to see these players not going full throttle.
The 12th man
Speaking of the crowd, Les Blues army of fans will most likely drown out any attempt of a Portuguese cheer. The strength of home advantage is not a myth but a psychological fact, and is duly demonstrated by both teams’ records in major tournaments; France generally win tournaments when they’re the hosts, and Portugal last reached a major tournament final when on home soil. In the dying embers of a game, crowd support is crucial in easing the pain of 85 minutes of intense physical demand. It is here where France will definitely have the upper hand, so it is crucial that Portugal does their best to silence them.
If nothing else, this is where France really do have the upper hand. If France does need to call upon fresh legs, their bench boasts talents such as Anthony Martial, Kingsley Coman, Moussa Sissoko, Gignac, the list goes on. They can bring on players to inject pace, control a game, add additional power…they literally have the perfect bench. In comparison, Portugal’s bench is – there’s no other word for it really – dire. Ricardo Quaresma has proved to be a useful sub to have in this tournament so far but apart from him, Portugal cannot look to the bench to add anything. Their only other attacking option is to bring on the frontman Eder, and if I need to tell you how unfancied that alternative is, then you really don’t watch football.
Having summed up these three factors then, it is difficult to see France not ending the week as European Champions. It would be a far cry from what France fans would’ve expected following their implosion at the 2010 World Cup and would, in fact, be a fitting tribute to the nation following the tragedies of the Paris attacks in November 2015.