So here it is, finally, that one Sunday the whole of France had hoped and waited for, for more than six years since the moment the country was awarded the right to host Euro 2016. France, one of the tournament favourites and expected finalists, face Portugal, the overachieving dark horses, in what promises to be a monumental European final at Stade de France in Paris.
For Les Bleus, the road to the final has been a long, bumpy and nervy one. It has seen plenty of ups and downs along the way – from the crumbling of the foundations of French football following a disastrous 2010 FIFA World Cup to a series of coordinated terror attacks that ripped through the heart of its capital city, jeopardising the tournament itself.
From the exclusion of Karim Benzema, the country’s number one forward, for his involvement in blackmailing teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex-tape, to Mamadou Sakho, one of France’s best centre-backs, being suspended by UEFA after testing positive for a ‘fat burner’ (he was later cleared of the charges).
Add to these, the accusations from various quarters of racism in coach Didier Deschamps’ squad selection and injuries to four of France’s centre-backs which left the defence in tatters, and one would find that the preparations were far from ideal heading into a home tournament.
Expectations, though, remained sky high. The French squad was full of talent. As it turned out, it’s this talent which, seldom in unison and often in turns, came through to carry France into the final.
Dimitri Payet kick-started proceedings for the French when he scored a stunning last-gasp winner against Romania in the opening game and instantly became the toast of the nation. The goal was simply the crowning glory of a stupendous individual performance that has perhaps only been bettered by Belgian Eden Hazard’s display against Hungary. Payet’s early promise, though, hasn’t spilled over to the knockout rounds where Antoine Griezmann, France’s top scorer with six goals, has taken over the role of saviour.
The Romania game resulted in an unconvincing win which showed promise and problems in equal amounts – a template of success that the team unwittingly followed all through the event. The attack was visibly disjointed while the defence showed its vulnerability.
Paul Pogba, the supposed heir to former greats Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane who was tipped to carry France to success, put in a disappointing shift. To such an extent, in fact, that he was substituted midway through the second half along with Griezmann. This was a major cause for worry.
Neither of the two featured in the next starting XI, against Albania in Marseille, which was a bold decision by Deschamps. An incorrect one too seeing how things panned out. But an early kick up the back side of these two players had far-reaching positive effects on France’s fortunes.
Both Pogba and Griezmann, substitutes at the Stade Velodrome, emphatically answered their critics. Albania, the tournament debutants, had embarrassingly outplayed the French in the first half, before the second half introduction of the above pair transformed the match in favour of the hosts.
Griezmann scored a fabulous header while Pogba supplied the perfect assist to Payet for a 2-0 win following which he allegedly made an offensive gesture towards the French media who had showered him with criticism. Pogba, though, denied doing so and claimed it was a routine celebration. At least the French campaign feels complete – what would it feel like without the usual dose of controversy?
Olivier Giroud, meanwhile, was booed off the pitch just as he was in the friendlies leading up to the tournament. His love-hate relationship with the French crowd continued but his importance to the team’s attack – both as the focal point and the perfect foil to Griezmann – became abundantly clear in the subsequent matches.
A patchy goalless draw against the Swiss, in which Deschamps rested a number of key players, meant France topped the group and avoided considerably tougher opponents. Mission accomplished? On paper, yes, but the French were still missing a comprehensive victory and even a settled starting XI.
Republic of Ireland offered strong resistance in the Round of 16 but Griezmann’s stellar double-strike turned around a 0-1 deficit into a 2-1 victory. The hosts’ response to going behind here was noteworthy.
Iceland, in the quarters, were blown away as France finally picked up a convincing win and put in the most dominant performance by any team in Euro 2016. Pogba ran himself into form and Samuel Umtiti, the debutant who came in for the suspended Adil Rami, cemented a place in the starting XI.
The semi-final against Germany proved to be a peculiar one. France rode their luck to grind out a 2-0 win on the back of a couple of decisive mistakes from the opposition. In reality, the hosts were utterly battered and were a picture of helplessness for the majority of the game.
Once again, Deschamps had got his starting line-up wrong. This came as no surprise to anyone who had followed the team through the tournament. In three of France’s five matches before the semi-final, the coach had been forced to make tactical changes with his starting XI struggling on the pitch.
In fact, only versus Iceland did his initial line-up click into gear. Buoyed by the success against the minnows, the semi-final was the first time Deschamps had repeated the formation and starting XI from the previous game. Every time he has tried to be proactive, he’s ended up being reactive.
It has been quite a struggle for Deschamps but he finds himself in the final. Team spirit – so often missing in a French campaign – over tactics has been the secret to the coach’s success.
In the final, though, Deschamps and his side will be put through a stern test. Portugal are the kind of plucky yet lethal opponents that France haven’t faced thus far. They’re a cautious, organised, often defensive-minded side with a strong attack – a rather unique combination in this tournament.
Coach Fernando Santos’ side play in a compact manner to frustrate opponents – and spectators, for that matter. With the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Nani and young Renato Sanches powering them forward, they are also pretty dangerous on the counter-attack.
Deschamps will again have a big call to make. Should he recall N’Golo Kante to the starting XI to not only negate the threat of Ronaldo on the break but also counter the opponents’ midfield numbers? Or should he go with an unchanged line-up considering that unlike against Germany, France will probably dominate possession versus Portugal? Answers to these questions could make or break the final.
France are firm favourites. They may never have lost to Portugal in a major competition or in any match since 1975 but in a tournament that has seen the end of long-standing hoodoos – Germany over France, Italy over Germany – it is hardly a great omen. A fascinating final awaits us on Sunday.
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Updated Date: Jul 10, 2016 13:20:59 IST