CoachUp Previews: European Cup Finals -- France vs. Portugal
At long last, we’ve reached the European Championship Finals and the host-nation France will face off against sloppy-but-successful Portugal on Sunday. Of course, these victors come on the heels their defeats of scrappy underdog Wales and perennial powers Germany, so, this could be an incredible showdown of footballing talent. Today, we’ll preview the match, the players to watch, and then make one last prediction -- who will go down in history?
In Paris, the French side will feel comfortable, ending the tournament the same place it started just about a month ago against Romania. For quite sometime, the French team were stuck in second gear, pulling off dramatic 90+ winners or free-kick spectaculars as their typically fluid offense stuttered in the open field. Then came Iceland, the perfect underlings for French to break out of their shells against, dropping a five spot on the tiny nation over the weekend. At the forefront of that attack was Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, who have formed quite a formidable duo up top for Les Bleus. Griezmann’s brace against Germany pushed them through to the Final with six total goals and guaranteed him the tournament’s Golden Boot Award, given to the highest scorer, so long as Cristiano Ronaldo doesn’t bag a hat trick on Sunday.
Supported by the magical Dimitri Payet and Paul Pogba in the midfield, this French side may be getting their mojo at the right time after manager Didier Deschamps played with the formation throughout the group stage. Coming into the tournament, pundits were worried about the French’s hackneyed defensive unit, but they’ve done quite well to this point, conceding only four goals through six games -- two of them coming against Iceland after the game was in hand. Can Laurent Koscielny and Hugo Lloris stop the two-headed attack of Ronaldo and Nani?
Key Player: Antoine Griezmann because, for most of the tournament, the French side looked lost as how to operationalize the class player in their side, but finally cracked the code playing him alongside Giroud. The Arsenal man’s heady knockdowns have provided Griezmann many brilliant opportunities and, against an incredibly shaky Portuguese defense, the starlet may find the back of the net another time in the Final.
For Portugal, as much as the casual fan may not realize, this squad is not all about superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. Although Ronaldo notched his third goal of the tournament in their Semi-Final against Wales, just one tally in the competition’s easiest group stage left much to be desired. In this current setup, Ronaldo is playing just a bit out his unnatural position with Real Madrid, but all it takes is one free kick to change everything.
Other major players for Portugal include Nani, who has notched three goals of his own, and Renato Sanches, the 18 year-old midfielder that has captivated onlookers. Although they may possess one of the world’s best individual players, the team effort has been disjointed and simplistic, perhaps even lucky to be in their fortunate position. In any other tournament, this Portuguese side wouldn’t have made it out of the Group Stage -- major benefactors from a Round of 16 that took four of the six third place finishers -- after three listless draws against Hungary, Iceland, and Austria. Following that, they scrapped by dark horse Croatia after a fluke goal in the 117th minute by Ricardo Quaresma, rescuing them from the unpredictable penalties.
Unavoidable in the next round, Portugal shielded a 1-1 draw well into extra time, limping by a Poland side that missed just one chance in a shootout. Then, of course, was their defeat of Wales -- so, while it was nice to see the 8th ranked team score twice in succession in the open field of play, the Red Dragons were certainly hindered without their star midfielder and important cog, Aaron Ramsey. Basically, it hasn’t been the pretty or starry-eyed flight that most fans expected, but manager Fernando Santos summed it up before the showdown against Wales: “I’m not worried about being the ugly duckling or someone who feels sorry for himself. I'm interested about getting to the final and winning it. It doesn't bother me or the players at all. Would I like us to be pretty? Yes. But, in between being pretty and being at home, or being ugly and being here, I prefer to be ugly."
Can Portugal pull off one more ugly win?
Key Player: Cristiano Ronaldo -- under any scale of analysis, the talented footballer has struggled in this tournament, but we all know the power that his boots possess. As we said, all it takes is one magical moment for Portugal to Greece their way to a pragmatic, but gutsy European Championship.
Prediction: France 2, Portugal 1