The 1984 European Championship. The 1998 World Cup. The 2016 European Championship? France is closing in on a third straight major tournament win on home soil after beating world champion Germany 2-0 in a compelling, captivating, stunning semifinal at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille. It will now play Portugal in Sunday’s final in at the Stade de France in Paris.
Portugal may have preferred to face Germany, given its record against France. Portugal has not beaten France in 10 games, and it’s lost two semifinals, at Euro 2000 and the 2006 World Cup (both decided on controversial penalties).
There were also two recent defeats in friendlies. This tournament has seen teams break lengthy hexes in the last two rounds, though, with Germany overcoming Italy for the first time in competitive play and France beating Germany for the first time in a tournament since 1958.
Here are a few opening thoughts ahead of an intriguing final clash:
This final is about the two Madrid-based stars
If Portugal’s run to the final is credited to one player, Cristiano Ronaldo, the impact of France’s main man has been greater.
Antoine Griezmann scored both goals against Germany and has now got six in the tournament, three ahead of anyone else (and that includes Ronaldo and Dmitri Payet).
All of France will want Griezmann to score again in the final: Les Bleus have never lost when the Atletico Madrid striker has scored. His latest brace means France has now won eight games and drawn two when he has found the back of the net.
Atletico could be responsible for the smartest transfer business all summer by extending his contract (and increasing the buyout clause) before things got underway in France. More than Paul Pogba, more than Gareth Bale (even more than Hal Robson-Kanu!), Griezmann is the one player who is closing the gap on Lionel Messi and Ronaldo atop the world’s individual hierarchy.
Perhaps Sunday, he can bridge it even further and draw some revenge for the Champions League final, where Atletico fell to Ronaldo’s Real. Griezmann missed a penalty in regulation, and both converted in the PK shootout–where Ronaldo’s spot kick clinched the victory.
Portugal’s selection dilemma
Portugal coach Fernando Santos was without the suspended William Carvalho against Wales and has a selection dilemma on his hands: to keep Danilo, who is more consistent and was excellent in the semifinal, or restore the Sporting youngster. He has also reworked his center back pairing, with Pepe injured and Bruno Alves joining the faultless Jose Fonte. Pepe may return if he recovers in time, but Ricardo Carvalho, who started Portugal’s first game, has slipped out of the reckoning.
This is why Santos, after the Wales game, spoke of Portugal’s squad depth.
“We’re not the best team in the world, but we know that we are not pushovers, either,” he said. “We work hard. And above all, we are a team. A team of 23, plus all the fans too.”
Santos has made Portugal so hard to beat. In his 13 competitive matches in charge, Portugal has won nine and drawn four. He has quietly rotated his team throughout the tournament, but kept the same 4-4-2 shape with the unlikely strike partnership of Ronaldo and Nani at the top. Both have scored three goals (Ronaldo has added three assists, Nani one), and Nani says he has taken on a surprising mentor role.
“We try to pass our experience because we have been through a lot of the things which are new to the younger ones,” he said.
A worthy champion will be crowned
Cynics have claimed that the draw clearly favored the host nation, and this was its biggest test. Beating Germany, which in the first half played some of the best football we have seen this summer, shows that it would be a worthy European champion.
Can we say the same for Portugal? Why not? Even though it was a third-place finisher in its group, it has had a tougher run to the final, beating Croatia (in extra time), Poland (on penalties) and Wales (in normal time) compared to France (Ireland, Iceland, Germany). It has proven to be tough side to break down, even if it lacks the obvious flair of its opponent Sunday.
A thrilling final awaits.