Both semifinals at Euro 2016 were games of a few isolated moments. There was Cristiano Ronaldo’s header, and Bastian Schweinsteiger’s inexplicable handball, along with flashes of fortune and industry from Nani and Antoine Griezmann.
Neither Portugal nor France truly dominated against Wales and Germany, but at this level, total domination is rare. The margins are so thin, the games so tight; it is often the small moments that make the difference.
No team at Euro 2016 can attest to that game theory better than Portugal. Fernando Santos’ team has one only one of its six games in France in normal time, but now stands just 90 minutes from its first major tournament success.
France has hardly been consistent in this tournament, but thanks to several heavy doses of individual brilliance, they’ve made it to the final with their dream of lifting their country intact.
Griezmann has been great – he’s assured of the Golden Ball and Golden Boot if France win the final – and was unplayable against Germany, but the real breakout performer of the semifinal was center-back Samuel Umtiti.
Umtiti, only in the squad because of a glut of injuries at center back, won his first-ever cap in the quarterfinal with Adil Rami out on a yellow card suspension. He hasn’t looked back, and will be tasked with slowing down Ronaldo in the air.
If Deschamps was comfortable enough to stick with the team that demolished Iceland against Germany, he should do the same here. That’d mean no place for N’Golo Kante, with Griezmann playing underneath Olivier Giroud.
France: Lloris (C), Evra, Umtiti, Koscielny, Sagna, Matuidi, Pogba, Griezmann, Sissoko, Payet, Giroud
Portugal: R. Patricio, Cedric, Pepe, Fonte, R. Guerreiro, W. Carvalho, A. Silva, J. Mario, R. Sanches, Ronaldo (C), Nani
This promises to be a tight, cagey affair – though a quick start from France isn’t out of the question. The favorites should have no problem playing the game on the front foot.
Santos has led his team with the joy of a parole officer, and Portugal will likely to slow the game and their opponent down as much as possible while lumping crosses towards Ronaldo.
The manager has bristled at suggestions that his team doesn’t deserve to be in the final, but it’s a hard case to make. Portugal has, in this tournament, failed to beat Iceland, Austria, Hungary, Croatia, and Poland in 90 minutes.
Santos will be able to pick Pepe, who missed out injured against Wales, and he’ll also be able to bring William Carvalho back into the team after he was suspended for the semifinal. Where Ronaldo lines up will be interesting to watch, but even when he’s played wide here, he’s done his damage in the box.
Both teams could be dangerous on attacking set pieces. Dimitri Payet looked tired against Germany, but he should be up for this occasion. Paul Pogba has gotten better as the tournament has gone on, and he could be the main man here.
France has plenty of weaponry, and Portugal will certainly not be able to come back from a multi-goal deficit. If Deschamps’ team is cautious, though, it’ll play into Portugal’s hands.
At this point, though, it’s hard to see past France. They’re the better team here, with more big-game experience, more match-winners, and more ambition, but mostly this feels like destiny. Les Blues doesn’t lose at home. Not in 1984. Not in 1998. Not now.
Predicted winner: France
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