107 goals, 51 games, 30 days, 22 teams and two nations. Euro 2016 has reached its conclusion and a nation holds its breath as France find Portugal standing between them and the trophy.
The group stages were not as impressive for either team as expected but Portugese fans would have been expecting much better from what was termed one of the weakest groups in the tournament. However Iceland reached the quarter-finals and Hungary the last 16, so clearly opposition that Portugal dominated for the majority of their games were better than initially anticipated.
Their progress through the knockout stages has been an expert display in tournament knockout football, getting the better of Croatia in a dreary game thanks to profligate finishing from their opponents and then rallying from a dire start to get the better of Poland on penalties, having finished the better of the two sides. It took them 23 days and six attempts to win in 90 minutes but that one against Wales was a comfortable one for much of the second half after two goals in short succession and that should not put one off their prospects this evening.
France struggled with nerves and tactical imbalances through the group stages but forced changed at halftime during their last 16 win over Ireland and the benefit of those changes was borne out in their 5-2 thrashing of Iceland in the quarter final when they cut apart the tournament’s success stories.
Those successes came at the hands of a kind knockout draw but when their biggest challenge came in the semi-final when they faced World Champions Germany in Marseille, where two Antoine Griezmann goals for the second game in succession saw them knock out Low’s men. That victory against far stronger opposition than Portugal faced in Wales sees the French as short priced favourites for the trophy and that feels correct.
The key factors tonight, as with every other major final, will likely be tactical; Griezmann has been transformed since going through the middle, which has also bought the best out of Giroud in a playmaking role, and Paul Pogba has been given free roam through the middle as he has improved steadily through the tournament. However they were overrun by Germany for large parts of their semi-final with Pogba and Matuidi exposed where N#Golo Kante would not have been bypassed so easily.
It would be no surprise for Deschamps to change back once again to a 4-4-2 with Kante but France have been better since the schalkes were thrown off and for all that Portugal are a solid and combative team, they do not have the overall quality or metronomic possession of the Germans. This will be the first time that they have faced a side shorter than them for outright glory and they have only beaten Wales, shorn of Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies, in 90 minutes.
Their main threats are perceived to be Nani and Cristiano Ronaldo, who changed the game against the Welsh and has carried Portugal a long way, but the emergence of Renato Sanchez has been crucial for their attacking prospects. The Bayern man’s use of space allied with brute force has changed the dynamics of Portugal going forward and if he is stopped France will go a long way to winning the trophy.
Questions have been brought regarding the defensive capability of France but Samuel Umtiti looks a natural and Hugo Lloris was exceptional against Germany when put under immense pressure; Going forwards, they must break down a tough rearguard action but they have far more attacking talent than Poland or Wales ever did whilst they at least have more mobile striking options than Croatia, not to mention the talent off the bench. France can end what has been a turbulent period with victory here to send a nation wild and it may be a tight old task too.
1 pt France (23/20 Totesport, Betfred, Stan James))
1 pt France to win by one goal (13/5 Paddy Power)