All the hypothetical theories and speculative talk have now narrowed down to two teams. The final at the Stade de France on Sunday, fittingly hosting France, who are no surprise to be there at all.
Traditional underachievers Portugal, I wouldn’t say are shock finalists either, but given the way that they performed in the group stages, only narrowly sneaking into the play-off’s through the best 3rd placed team spot, I would say surprising. Not often does a team that does not win a single game in regulation, make it all the way to the semi finals.
I do find the group stage system flawed, in that it led to boring football with many teams playing defensive football in order to secure that spot. It led to a low-scoring group stage which has ultimately evened itself out with very exciting knock-out games. However, Portugal are there and although they didn’t play particularly well and strategically looked a little off the cuff, I believe that fate (if you believe in such a thing) is more integral to their progression than any consistency or proven football capability over an extended run. France, on the flip side, are a team that have climbed up the ladder of world football in recent years and after a narrow loss, to eventual World Cup winners Germany in the 2014 quarters, have steadily progressed as a team that are now two years more experienced but with the same core group of players from that world cup. Although they didn’t perhaps dominate this semi -final, as a 2-0 score line suggests, they beat the World Champions and the clean sheet will inspire them even further to believe they have the tools to win this.
Antoine Griezmann is a rising star and was the driving force on attack in front of a stoic, experienced French defense. In combination with Olivier Giroud, I think the French have more boxes ticked in all areas of the pitch and will drive France home in 90 minutes against Portugal. From a Portuguese perspective, they may argue the fact that the form book goes out the window and it’s literally only 90 minutes that stands between them and lofting and much overdue major tournament CUP, above their heads.
Along with Holland, Portugal are the probably the best football nation never to have won a major football event and although the head and the odds themselves suggest it is unlikely, I am a firm believer in destiny. Wales looked very solid and after an outstanding quarter final against a much fancied Belgium, were a tough nut to crack. Portugal came out inspired by this and for once Ronaldo truly looked to put the team first and foremost. If Portugal can replicate that again and then some, perhaps they can challenge this French team?
France played very ‘Germany’ like, against Germany in the semi-final and were super composed and ruthless with the few chances they had. Germany were unlike themselves, making naive errors like the hand-ball spot penalty Bastian Schweinsteiger conceded, to hand France the imputes and momentum when they were under the cosh for most of the 1st half. France took that break with Griezmmann stepping up, taking it with precision and icy calmness. They did what we don’t normally associate with France and whilst not having much possession, were efficient with the opportunities afforded to them. They won ‘ugly’ in terms of comparing the usual panache over resilience that you associate with French football ! With all the ability that they have on attack being unquestionable, this game was perfect preparation in dealing with a team that is dominant in possession, yet still find a way to win.
Putting to rest any thoughts that France have a soft under belly. Their belief must be sky high. Added to that strong sense of patriotism that will exude from the crowd, they will be awesome to behold. They will have far more possession than playing against Germany and I hope that Portugal can match them to make this an encounter to remember. We will witness the result of a team riding a wave of confidence from a long run of great results, rallied by their parochial home support against an opponent that has scrapped their way to another chance at putting the wrongs of the past right. 2004 in St Denis against Greece was a Portugal team strongly fancied to win. Tomorrow is the reverse scenario. Perhaps that underdog tag will suit them well ….
A few interesting facts to sign off with : Head-to-head France versus Portugal: played 24: France won:18 ; Portugal won: 5 and 1 draw.
France have won the last 10 games between the two sides, which stretches back 40 years to Portugal’s 2-0 win at the Parc de Princes in 1975.
Statistics are for the history books and records and runs are set to be broken . May THE BEST TEAM win!