We’ve made it, folks. After all the upsets, late goals, and England’s biannual early major tournament exit, the 2016 European Championships Final is upon us. France will look to be the first hosts to win the tournament since 1984, while Portugal will try to exorcise some of their demons their 2004 final defeat at the hands of Greece. Can France win their third European Championships or will Ronaldo further his case in the GOAT discussion with his first major international trophy? With storylines and intrigue aplenty, let’s delve into what to expect in continental soccer’s biggest final.
How They Got Here:
Hosts France were favorites coming into the tournament in large part because of the balance of quality throughout the squad. This balance has proved vital, with the attacking triumvirate of Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, and Dimitri Payet returning 12 of the team’s 13 goals. The defense has allowed just 4 goals, even with young Samuel Umtiti slotting in at center back for the knockout stages.
Les Bleus struggled in the group stage, needing late goals to dispatch minnows Albania and Romania before their bore draw against Switzerland. They started slowly again versus Ireland in the Round of 16 but rebounded to qualify for the final eight. We finally saw the electric France team we were promised against Iceland, putting the game to bed after just 45 minutes. Forced to sit in against an equally dynamic German team, they were excellent on the break and got their reward with two goals from Griezmann to put them through to the final.
Portugal looked like a team in transition in the lead up to the Euros. Ronaldo, Nani, and Pepe remain hold outs of the old guard, while Bayern Munich golden boy Renato Sanches led the country’s youth revolution. This team wasn’t meant to mesh; they were supposed to be disjointed and individualistic, destined for an early exit.
In the group stage, that forecast appeared to be prophetic. The Portuguese became the first victims of Iceland’s Cinderella run with a frustrating 1-1 tie in their opening game. They drew their next two group games against Austria and Hungary to just sneak into the Round of 16 as a third-place wildcard. They were instrumental in the most tedious match of these championships against Croatia, a late, late Ricardo Quaresma goal booking them a spot in the quarters. Portugal again failed to win in normal time against Poland, going through on penalties to meet Wales in the semis. Cristiano Ronaldo finally showed up in that match to win the battle between the world’s two most expensive players, sending Portugal to an unlikely 2nd final appearance.
How They’ll Line Up
France manager Didier Deschamps has fiddled with his lineup less than his counterpart, Fernando Santos, but probably still doesn’t know his best side. The back five are more or less set. Center back Umtiti kept his place against Germany after stepping in for the suspended Adil Rami in the quarterfinal, so expect him to start again. The real questions arise in midfield. Does Deschamps go back to his three-man midfield of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, and N’Golo Kante? Or does he continue with the 4-2-3-1 he has employed so successfully in the past two rounds? He may want to spread out Portugal’s diamond in center midfield. If so, he’ll opt to go with Pogba and Matuidi in midfield. That leaves Griezmann with a free role in behind Giroud, likely flanked by Payet’s brilliance and Moussa Sissoko’s industry.
Santos has come up with the most unusual formation at these Euros: a sort of narrow 4-1-3-2 with Ronaldo and Nani peeling out wide periodically. Such a strange set up has disrupted both opponents’ and his own team’s play, resulting in a number of dour, physical stalemates. He’ll no doubt employ the same strategy against France, especially accounting for the hosts’ attacking firepower.
Santos has mix and matched in every match so far, so it’s difficult to predict exactly what his team selection will look like. If Pepe’s healthy, expect him to partner with Jose Fonte at the back. Cedric Soares and Raphael Guerriero should line up as outside backs in a conventional back four. The fun starts in midfield. The one near-constant has been William Carvalho as the holding player, and he’ll be crucial in breaking up play against France. Ahead of him, look for three of Sanches, Danilo, Joao Mario, and Adrien Silva to clog up the midfield. Ronaldo will start up front but it will be interesting to see if Santos selects the in-form Quaresma or Nani’s pace and experience.
Finals are almost invariably tight, tense matches as teams try to avoid making mistakes that could cost them a title. This one should be no different, though France should take the upper hand and dominate the ball. However, this may be exactly what both teams want. France like to monopolize possession and try to break teams down from the outside in. Conversely, Portugal have enjoyed their most success by breaking play up in midfield, countering quickly, and converting set pieces.
Many of Les Bleus’ goals have come from combination play out wide and a whipped ball into the box for Griezmann or Giroud to put away. The key to this approach is getting the fullbacks, Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra, forward to create overloads and space. But they may not be able to get up and down the flanks effectively enough on such short rest, given their advanced age, 33 and 35, respectively. Spreading the play will also be key to playing through Portugal down the middle. The Portuguese have been effective in part because they’ve been able to remain compact in midfield. But if France can stretch them out to the wings, that provides more space for the likes of Pogba and Griezmann to take players on and shoot from distance.
Fernando Santos’ team has successfully shut down a number of star players in order to reach the final. They forced Croatia’s Luka Modric so far back that he had to take the ball off his center backs. Despite his early goal, Robert Lewandowski had to run into wide areas in order to get on the ball in the quarters. And most recently, they doubled down on Gareth Bale every time he received a pass. In short, the Portuguese manager has got his gameplan exactly right in the knockout stages.
While Griezmann is undoubtedly France’s superstar, they have so many other weapons going forward. Santos may still opt to man-mark Griezmann, taking away his opponents’ most potent threat. He may be forced to drop one of his center forwards in favor of another midfielder to stymie France’s attack (it won’t be Ronaldo). If that sounds like a negative move, that’s because it is. But Portugal hasn’t reached the final through pretty soccer; they get stuck in, stay organized and look to capitalize on half chances. Their first aim will be to frustrate France and take the crowd out of the game as much as possible. They can sit deep and rely on Ronaldo’s brilliance going forward. His immense attacking talents could be enough to get them the winning goal or two that they need.
The 2016 Euros have seen a number of low scoring games that explode into life late on. Indeed, we’ve seen 29 goals scored in the last 15 minutes or later at this tournament, including 10 in stoppage or extra time. That 29 goals is good for 27% of the total number of goals at the entire tournament. The later this game is goalless, the better chance Portugal have to pull out a win. As players get tired, they’ll have more room to counter into after they win possession. An early France goal would draw Portugal out and probably produce a more entertaining game.
Ultimately, Les Bleus’ quality should overwhelm the Portuguese underdogs, who benefitted massively from drawing the easy side of the bracket. A 2-1 French victory looks likely given their dynamism going forward and Portugal’s uncharacteristically blunt attack.
Griezmann wins the Golden Boot and Golden Ball, besting his club rival Ronaldo. The Eiffel Tower turns blue in celebration of their team’s second European championship as hosts. France are champions, Portugal come up short again. It should be an exciting match, with some of the best talent in world football on show. The summer of soccer is about to reach an exhilarating climax, make sure you tune in.