Portugal survived a high-intensity first half French barrage, and the Kingsley Coman-led second wave, to eventually win a war of attrition against their physically spent hosts.
Although Didier Deschamps kept faith with the starting eleven that bested Germany in the semi-finals, the defensive outlook that won that particular day was firmly discarded. France pressed relentlessly in Portuguese territory in the first half, a tactic that very nearly paid dividends on the scoreboard when Rui Patricio acrobatically foiled Antoine Griezmann’s header. Griezmann’s provider, Dimitri Payet, was gifted possession of the football when Pepe slipped under pressure.
France’s high defensive line almost cost them dearly in the opening minutes when Nani beat Laurent Koscielny’s to Cedric Soares’ long pass. That would prove to be Portugal’s only genuine opportunity of the first 90 minutes however, as Cristiano Ronaldo’s early injury-enforced departure from the stage robbed Fernando Santos’ side of a 2-v-2 against the French centre backs.
Payet, the unlikely source of Ronaldo’s knee-related woes, typified the gusto with which France’s frontline pursued the Selecao rearguard. Moments before he followed through on the Real Madrid man, the Reunion native – not exactly renowned for his aggression – had given no quarter to another opponent near the centre-circle.
Having commenced the game in the usual 4-1-3-2 configuration, Ricardo Quaresma’s replacement of Ronaldo in a right wing role signaled a Portuguese shift to 4-1-4-1, resulting in a perfect man-to-man match-up in midfield with Deschamps’ 4-2-3-1. France, who were already struggling to craft changes, now looked even more unlikely to penetrate, with Paul Pogba failing to show an aptitude for initiating attacks from deep in his own half.
The hosts’ only bright spot in attack was right-sided midfielder Moussa Sissoko, who was given licence to tuck in and run with the ball through the centre of the pitch. The Newcastle United man managed to rack up five successful dribbles in the opening half-hour, and also popped up in an unlikely inside-left position to test Rui Patricio in the 34th minute.
Modern fitness coaching theory opines on the importance of a minimum of three days rest if players are to make an optimal recovery between matches. The second half drop-off in intensity from France, who enjoyed only two days off prior to this final, will certainly add credence to that point of view.
Having forced the three most advanced midfielders that Portugal started with into 14 losses of possession in the first half, the hosts only managed to perform the same feat a further four times over the course of the remaining 75 minutes.
Sissoko’s opening half-hour burst of energy also faded markedly, with the midfielder only pulling off a further two dribbles by game’s end. France continued to confront Portugal high up the pitch, but the press was very much a false one by the time the hour mark arrived.
Only the introduction of the ultra-direct Kingsley Coman briefly revitalised Deschamps’ flagging troops, and the first fifteen minutes of his time on the pitch – in which the Bayern winger created three chances – should have yielded a goal.
Santos, mindful of the futility of the long passes the high-blocking France were forcing his defence into, introduced ex-Swansea target man Eder to the frontline in the 79th minute, moving Nani to the right wing in the process.
This proved a shrewd decision for two reasons, as both Eder’s hold-up play and Nani’s counter-attacking runs lifted the pressure temporarily off the shoulders of his embattled team. Still, France could and should have sealed it at the death, when the otherwise excellent Pepe’s second error of the game allowed Andre-Pierre Gignac to turn and hit the post.
France paid for this profligacy as their energy levels continued to ebb away. Extra-time saw the previously all-at-sea Portugal in the ascendancy for the first time, as that extra, third, day of rest began to seriously factor into the equation. Eder’s header from a Quaresma corner and Raphael Guerreiro’s crossbar-rattling strike from a wrongly awarded free-kick were mere portents of the pain that was to come for the previously cocksure coqs gaulois.
Booked for a handball that Eder committed prior to Guerreiro’s brush with the woodwork, Koscielny could only watch as the Lille striker outmuscled him to strike the deathblow from outside the French area.
That Mark Clattenburg clanger, allied to Griezmann and Gignac’s normal-time misses, will undoubtedly lead a sizable portion of the French support to simply point to misfortune as the sole source of their woes. But, while there is certainly an element of truth to that analysis, such an overview would fail to see how this result fits in to the greater narrative of Euro 2016.
Despite only winning one game in 90 minutes, Santos picked a system that he believed would suit his players and stuck with it throughout; even his switch to 4-1-4-1 upon the departure of a striker was a common gambit from the Portugal manager at this tournament.
Deschamps, meanwhile, has oscillated uncertainly between 4-1-4-1 and 4-2-3-1, only settling on the latter after Griezmann’s successful second half stint in the number 10 role against the Republic of Ireland. This decision meant the freezing out of N’Golo Kanté, whose presence was sorely lacking in a defensive sense against Germany and in the instigation of attacks from the back tonight.
Selecting Kanté – a natural, world-class, holding player – frees up both Pogba and Blaise Matuidi to play the box-to-box games to which they are both best suited. Instead, Deschamps’ chosen duo played keep ball with their defenders for large periods of the game, and paid the dearest price when they, and their relatively poorly-rested teammates, inevitably tired. Santos and Portugal, for all their good fortune in this tournament, were worthy winners in the end.