Well, well, well. After almost two whole years of qualifying, group stage and knockout round drama, this was it. We started back in September 2014 with 53 teams from each and every nook and cranny of the continent, from Iceland to Israel, Andorra to Armenia and Bulgaria to Bosnia and Herzegovina, whittled it down to 24 for the tournament proper, and after countless matches, goals and shocks, now we were down to two. Hosts, pre-tournament favourites and football fanatics France versus noble, moderately blessed but highly unexpected Portugal. Some billed it as Ronaldo vs Griezmann, but it was far, far bigger than that. This was 10.46 million people and the footballing royalty of Eusebio, Luis Figo and Rui Costa, on the very western edge of Europe against the 66.03 million in the centre of Renaissance culture, Napoleon’s empire and ancient sporting history, France. This was bigger than anything right now, this was a battle of footballing history, one side far more common winners in terms of trophies, but both fairly successful for their size. It was a match to savour, one to sit and enjoy, however defensive we thought one side was going to be, this was the final stage, the culmination of two whole years of effort. This was footballing drama at its very best. A side which has only improved over the course of the tournament, adapting tactics, building up to their best performance in the semi-final, against a nation which has played arguably the best football, only failing to win or score in a single match, although they put in a totally contradictory tactical performance at the last four stage. What was going to be the result? Well, that was anybody’s guess.
So, who were the big names lining up for a shot at this once-in-a-lifetime trophy? Well, Portugal made two changes to the side which dispatched Wales in the last round, Pepe and William Carvalho coming in for a vastly experienced Bruno Alves and a comparatively young Danilo, following their injury and suspension respectively in the last round. One of the successes of the tournament, Renato Sanches, became the youngest player to play in the final of any Euros, at just 18 years and 326 days, with Fernando Santos putting his faith in the teenager. France, still fresh with their impassioned fans behind them, stuck with the same XI which thrashed Iceland and narrowly edged out Germany, Moussa Sissoko (now a Championship player) keeping his place instead of N’Golo Kante and the 4-3-3 returning, and Samuel Umtiti being rewarded with his third straight start after being a relative unproven talent on the international stage just four weeks ago. Was it time for Fernando Santos, who I thought looked desperate and clueless in the group stage, to win the European Championship, having been seen as a failure as Portugal boss before? Or was it time for the underperforming French to win their first trophy since 2000? The next 90 minutes (or more) would prove it all.
Early play was niggly and tense, with both sides setting out their clear tactical plans, Portugal to waste time whenever they could, press tight and target their two front men Ronaldo and Nani, France to play the ball around as much as possible to carve out patient chances. Antoine Griezmann and Nani both had decent opportunities early on, but neither were ever realistically going in. But then the drama of this final was dealt a massive blow. Cristiano Ronaldo, targeted by Dimitri Payet for the opening quarter of an hour, was forced off the field, not once, not twice, but three times in the space of 25 minutes, only for the challenges of the West Ham playmaker to take their required effect and eliminate him from the game. Finally, after giving his all in attempting to run off the ankle problem, he decided he couldn’t continue, and winced off the field in the comfort of a cold, hard stretcher, bringing to an end his involvement in this tournament, in which he has excelled both as captain and as a world-class individual. This was not only massive for him, it was game-changing for his country, as without arguably their best ever player in a team of mediocre but promising talents, they would surely have no chance in such a massive final.
The French were only spurred on this substitution (Ricardo Quaresma on for Ronaldo), as Moussa Sissoko surprisingly enough took control of his side’s attacking moves, forging his own shots and crosses with his effervescent power, pace and skill in tight spaces from the right wing. Thank god he tried to take control, because we hardly saw anything of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi or Olivier Giroud going forward in the first half. As the French stars faltered, the Portuguese actually began to take control in the latter stages of the half, Nani, Quaresma, Sanches and both full-backs (Cedric Soares and Raphael Guerreiro) linking up well on the edge of the box to just threaten Lloris’ goal with a few deflected shots and one-touch moves. Pepe almost got a decisive header from a corner, but other than that chances were at a premium. At the conclusion of it, the first 45 minutes fell into the pattern of a astonishingly large percentage of matches this month (21 of 50), goalless at half time. It was not the best football we had ever seen, but it was certainly tense and packed full of tight battles, everything you expect of a final. Nobody had shown anything worthy of deciding this final yet, but you could feel it was just around the corner. the game was just waiting to wake up and become a classic.
With both sides considerably roused for the decisive second half by Santos and Deschamps, it was time for play to begin again for potentially, and remorsefully, the last 45 minutes of the Euro 2016. The side in red (and green socks) looked up for it, Quaresma in particular stepping into the shoes of Ronaldo (however impossible that job was going to be), attempting to lead his side by example as the elder of their squad. Their attempt at a tiki-taka, in the style of their previously successful neighbours Spain, was in parts fairly effective, especially when they linked up in triangles along the by-line, cutting out numerous French midfielders from the game by tiring them out, only to lose the ball seconds later. France, on the other hand, struggled for any meaningful passes forward, usually getting crowded out as soon as they entered the opposition’s half. Deschamps decided to liven it up, benching an (other than injuring Ronaldo) ineffective Dimitri Payet for Kingsley Coman, bringing a little more guile to their attack. Only a few minutes later, the sub had an immediate impact, as Griezmann had a golden opportunity, from a delightful Coman cross which eliminated the Portuguese defence, but the Athletico Madrid striker could only mess it up by failing to judge his jump correctly. The ball struck him right on the forehead, but it sailed just above the crossbar, much to the despair of the millions of French fans across the country.
Portugal took heed from this warning, tracking back into their positions and tactical roles they had clearly been lectured on pre-match, if they were going to stand any chance at winning. They were playing outstandingly well defensively, with two players combining to shut down any danger at the first sight of it, and William Carvalho providing a vital presence in front of his defence, taking up any positions when they had been abandoned. It was heading for a stalemate, but Portugal were making it an easy-on-the-eye one, mastering the art of beautiful defending having learnt from the master, Monsieur Santos. France decided to go direct; Andre-Pierre Gignac, the big bumbling hunk of goal scoring (at least in the Mexican league) meat, coming on in place of a non-starter in Olivier Giroud. Portugal also brought on a target man of their own, former Swansea man Eder replacing Renato Sanches in an unexpectedly attacking move.
Despite the fact they had been defending for the past 10 minutes, it was Portugal who had the next best chance. Nani’s askew cross planted into the shocked palms of Hugo Lloris, who could only beat the ball away to Quaresma, who wonderfully turned his back and struck an impressive overhead kick, only for it to be swiftly saved by a lucky Lloris. But only a few minutes later, they were back to defending. As Umtiti surged forward from defence, he opened up the space for Sissoko to fire a bullet of a shot to Patricio’s right, only for the so-far outstanding goalkeeper to force it away, diving with all he could give. We all accepted the game would now go to extra-time, but Gignac nearly had a massive say in the tournament, so close to the biggest goal in the whole of Euro 2016. With 90+2 minutes on the clock, he picked up a low cross from his left, wriggled free of Pepe (leaving him on the floor) and scuffed a close range finish around Patricio and onto the near post, when he really should’ve scored. There were centre metres in it, but fate didn’t allow the Frenchman the glory. Not yet.
So this one was going late into the French night. Fitting I thought, considering how long France took to win their opening match (can you remember it now?) all of four weeks ago now, how long they struggled under the pressure of an expectant nation. Fitting too, for the Portuguese, because they had only won a single match in normal time in the whole tournament, having ground out late, late wins against Croatia in extra-time and Poland on penalties. If either team really wanted this, they were going to have to dig deep. In the first half of extra-time, the game drifted on without any serious goal scoring chances, other than Eder’s dangerously rising header from a corner, which Lloris used his cat-like reflexes to keep out.
Second half, and with little expected of it, the first chance came as a nice surprise. Raphael Guerreiro stepped up to strike a free kick on the edge of the box, in the absence of Ronaldo, and I’ll tell you what, he struck it just as well as the big man. It flew over the wall, kissed Lloris’ fingertips and smashed the crossbar, bouncing out and livening up the crowd. But that only started something much, much bigger. Just two minutes after Mark Clattenburg wrongly awarded Portugal the free kick (as it hit Eder’s hand, not Koscielny’s), the offender for it, the former Swansea striker, the lanky but powerful Eder, cracked what was potentially going to be a winning goal, a world changing goal, from 25 yards out, bumping along the surface as it went, straight into the bottom right corner of Lloris’ net, exactly where he couldn’t reach it. This was AMAZING. Portugal, vastly inferior, especially without Ronaldo, to the world-class French, were winning this match with only 11 minutes left. Eder, who had only previously scored three goals in 28 appearances for his country, had scored what was surely going to be a winning goal in the EUROPEAN CHAMPIONSHIP FINAL. Was this all a dream? No, this was the cold, hard truth, and it was cutting to the French fans.
But their side didn’t demonstrate the urgency to get back in the game. They may have had the ball, but they didn’t use it wisely, hitting it at Portuguese shins, leaving it for easy interceptions, and overall not finding the final ball. For a side widely tipped to win this competition, for a side so skilled, so blessed by world class talents, they were going to lose this. They were seriously going to throw this away after being the best team in the tournament prior to this match. And after they did finally chuck a decent ball in the box, and Martial volleyed it straight at the wall of Portuguese defenders, we all knew their chance was gone. The big timers lost in the final to the band of brothers, the most organised and determined side in the tournament, the ones with more steel than a thousand trophies.
So Santos did it. He had masterminded a minor nation to continental success, defeating the highly skilled, highly rated, expensively built side expected to win in the final. Well, it’s fair to say that he is a genius. He built a side capable of defeating anyone on any day, just by grinding out results. They had finished 3rd in their group to Hungary and Iceland, having failed to beat either of them, nor Austria, but they have ground out a route to winning this special tournament. Even Cristiano Ronaldo, with his agonising-looking ankle injury, was leaping up and down on the touchline like the manger himself, so passionate about the cause. In many ways, despite being a singular, arrogant player most of the time, Ronaldo exemplifies the spirit of this side; contributing all he could for his nation despite being good enough to win games on his own. And in the end, they didn’t need him in the final, beating the seemingly unconquerable French without his presence on the pitch. This was magical stuff, unbelievable stuff, spellbinding stuff, worthy of books and films in decades to come. Heroic victors, worthy champions, despite what we all predicted. I don’t think even Ronaldo himself would’ve realistically predicted that his side would win this tournament, particularly after his ‘microphone in the lake’ incident early in the tournament. Everything else is history know now, what we saw tonight was truly epic.
Team of the Day
Is this even worth debating anymore? We have proven the side of the tournament, not just the side of the day, it is that nation at the very south west of Europe, the incomparable Portuguese.
Player of the Day
William Carvalho set this game alight for me tonight. He is what kept his side in the game defensively, and what allowed for them to be successful, just the one time, going forward. He pinged great cross-field balls all across the park, and kept his position in front of the defence, splitting Griezmann and Giroud (and later Gignac), effectively stopping the French because their playmaker couldn’t link up with their goal scorers. Patricio, Guerreiro and Sissoko also deserve massive credit, but Carvalho set the tempo for a win tonight, and he was the heartbeat for his side’s unbelievable victory.
Goal of the Day
From the single goal scored, I don’t have a choice, but any tournament-winning goal is always worthy of an award. And this one was worthy of plaudits and awards all over the world, Eder smashing in an uncompromising, maybe speculative, but always goal-bound shot right into the perfect area, claiming everything it deserved. After everything we saw this month, this was a goal well, well worthy of getting the blood going for the Portuguese, and giving them their first ever international tournament trophy. Shocking, shocking, but oh so fitting after the year we’ve had, with upsets all over the world. It just seems that our lives have been shaken upside down, doesn’t it? And that is what sport does, it shakes up what we know, and turns it on its head.
Shock of the Day
If there was going to be one shock in a final, you would’ve surely thought that it would be a goal, a red card or a penalty miss maybe. But no, not here in the Stade de France, where a plague of ever-active, buzzing moths blighted the moods of players, management and fans inside the 80,000 seater. They covered the suits of Santos and Deschamps, the corner flags, the advertising boards and most comically Ronaldo’s face when he first lay down injured, just hovering over his finely tweezed eyebrows. Aah, nature, it tries to ruin every occasion, especially in the summer, doesn’t it?
Other than that, maybe the fact that PORTUGAL BEAT FRANCE TO WIN EURO 2016? A real, world-changing shock that will reverberate across the world for years to come.
Day Rating: 10/10 (Just because of the way it ended, and that it was a final)
I’m Looking Forward to…
Unpicking the rest of this now, and returning to normal life in a few days! Well, maybe I have to admit I don’t want to go back to life without Euro 2016, but it is certainly good for it be concluded. I’ll see you next week, with a blog probably up on Saturday afternoon, but possibly on Sunday, we’ll see what happens. But for now, let’s celebrate Portugal and how great Euro 2016 was! Goodnight, and goodbye from A Continental Affair!
P.S. Thank you all so much for keeping up with the twists and turns of this tumultuous month with me, I’m so grateful for the support and loyal reading you’ve given the blogs, and I hoped you enjoyed this month with me and Euro 2016!
After the anti-climax that was Wales vs Portugal yesterday, here came the real match of the tournament; two fitting finalists facing off for a spot in the final to potentially, and probably, win the tournament on Sunday night. Up stepped World champions Germany, headed by one of the world’s best managers in Joachim Löw, probably the number one goalkeeper in the globe Manuel Neuer, and other top players including Thomas Mueller, Mario Götze and Toni Kroos, to claim one hand on the trophy by putting in the teamwork and meticulous planning they have become known for. France, the away side on the scoreboard but very much the home one with the whole nation behind them, headed into the match as second favourites, but only by a slim margin considering they have been the top scoring side in the tournament so far with the flair and the talents of Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Dimitri Payet. The French may play beautiful football, but the Germans play the game effectively, they have the knowledge of how to win tournaments. I predicted this match to happen nearly four weeks ago now, and I also predicted a German win, but it was left to one of the two sides to make it happen. The time for speculation was over, now it was the opportunity to hype up the battle between the old guard of Europe, and the cultural and economic cornerstones of the EU. They were ready to face off against each other for a decisive place in the final of Euro 2016, their names in the history books on the line. Nobody remembers a runner-up? Ha, nobody ever remembers a semi-finalist, even if they are of the calibre of Germany and France, in the years after the tournament.
Following the suspension of Mats Hummels and the injuries to Mario Gomez and Sami Khedira, Germany made three swaps in the starting XI, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Julian Draxler returning, and the versatile Emre Can coming in for his first appearance of the tournament as Low’s team changed formation from 3-5-2 back to 4-2-3-1. For this to happen though, there had to be sacrifices, Mueller moving to the striker’s position, and Kroos pushing further forward to attacking mid in consideration of Can and Schweinsteiger, who are both naturally defensive. France, on the other hand, didn’t have such issues to worry about, naming an unchanged side from the one which thrashed Iceland 5-2, with the physical Samuel Umtiti and pacey Moussa Sissoko retained in place of Adil Rami and the unshakeable N’Golo Kante. There were still doubts about the experience of the side in blue, but it was up to them to prove us all wrong, as well as claiming a big scalp for the whole of the expectant nation around them.
As the cameras panned in from the beautiful, swinging nearby wave-like curves of the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, both sides bellowed out their national anthems with enough gusto to make even the hairs on the back of the neck of a partisan fan stand up. If singing could win games, there would’ve been a deadlock here in the victors of the match. From the very start of the match, you could just feel the weight of expectation on these two highly skilled sides, Neuer having to clean up from the remains of French chances questionably dealt with by his nervy defence and the ball being moved across the park quickly, with no one player really wanting to make an impact yet. Griezmann’s good opportunity on the edge of the box was tame, but Neuer still had to stretch to stop it, as France claimed the early ascendancy.
Germany were still very much creating, Mueller sliding wide another early opportunity as they moved the ball as if it were theirs to keep and toy with. Emre Can forced Lloris into a point-blank stop at his right post with a deflected shot, and the Germans were growing ever more into the match. They looked disciplined and well-drilled in their tactics, while the French appeared slightly less suited to their expansive (but slightly more refined than 4-3-3) style, with Paul Pogba the shining example of this, failing to track back and support his supposed midfield partner in Blaise Matuidi in the spells he needed to. When I explained my reasoning for tipping Germany in this match a month ago, the main aspect I mentioned was Deschamps’ relative inexperience on the international stage as boss, which would result in a lack of tactical nous at stages such as these in tournaments. So far, his side were proving me right, as even though they didn’t concede in the first half, they did look shaky at the back and slightly unsure of their formation when on the back foot, which became more and more common as Germany dominated possession. They grew back into the game in the final five minutes of the half, France, but even when Olivier Giroud had the ball clean through on goal after escaping with it from the half way line, his lax style let him down again as a surprisingly rapid Benedikt Höwedes recovered to perform a perfect slide to remove the ball from play. You just sensed that, even when France had their chances, it certainly wasn’t their half, and it may not be their match.
Scrap that. Shockingly, and to the surprise of everyone in the stadium, referee Nicola Rizzoli awarded France a penalty in time (not) added on, for an apparent handball by Bastian Schweinsteiger after Patrice Evra flicked on from a corner. It was a carbon copy of the penalty awarded to Italy in Germany’s last game, and for me neither of them deserved to be awarded, as there is nothing players can do from a yard away from the ball, you have to raise your arms to beat other players in the air, it’s basic aerodynamics. It was an absolute game-changing joke that it was given, and Antoine Griezmann gleefully tucked it away in the bottom left corner of Neuer’s goal, as the goalkeeper went the other way (despite his practice at penalties in the last round). Unbelievable and incredibly gutting scenes, maybe considering I was supporting Germany, but from a football perspective too, as apparently you now can’t use your arms to jump at set pieces nowadays, which is not very convincing from a refereeing perspective.
Germany went out early in the second half with the intention of putting immediate, high pressure when without the ball, and throwing men forward for the cause when they did have it. Draxler and Özil were soon the key men, cutting in from wide positions and delivering crosses for the likes of Mueller and Can to attempt to get a decisive touch to, but just failing in the opening periods of the half. The injured Jerome Boateng went off for Shkodran Mustafi in a substitution which just broke down the play when they needed it to flow, as despite almost everyone pushing up to France’s half, they couldn’t quite find that incisive moment. Götze also replaced an unremarkable and over-defensive Can in midfield, putting more focus on attack with around 25 minutes left, but Germany certainly didn’t look desperate, not yet at least.
France, in stark contrast, dropped even further back with the swap of N’Golo Kante for Dimitri Payet, putting the emphasis on sitting behind the ball for the remainder of the game. But this didn’t quite have the expected effect in the minute after. Paul Pogba dummied the ball this way and that from what seemed a hopeless position on the left against Mustafi and a missing-in-action Kimmich, and managed to squeeze in a cross, which the sweeper keeper Neuer could only paw away, only for his stretched defence to leave the ball to a well-primed Griezmann straight in front of goal to tap in between Neuer’s legs. It was a shambolic goal to concede from the perspective of a normally highly-organised Germany, who by this point had to push forward to get back into the game. But they only worsened their position in the match by doing so, and now they had to push for not one, but two goals to level up the match. Their prospects now looked dire.
As winger Leroy Sané came on for the Germans, he got an immediate chance from a brilliant cross, only for his shot from close range across the goal to be blocked, forcing it agonisingly wide. They soon turned to sticking four men up front (Götze, Özil, Draxler and Sané), but as the clock ticked down, none of them could quite reach the crosses coming in, as what they lacked in height, they didn’t have the chance to make up for on the ground. Even when they did get their head to the ball, Lloris saved Joshua Kimmich’s close range header at full stretch in added time, compounding Germany’s bad luck throughout the second half. France, after a tough last 15 minutes or so to hold out, were into the final. I don’t know how they did it, but they were somehow in the final.
Team of the Day
You know what, I can’t even say France were the better side on the night, so I’m going to say Germany. The reason they won this match for me, was down to the shockingly misguided penalty decision at the end of the first half, which allowed France the opportunity to go into the second half with a lead. If it hadn’t have been given, and it shouldn’t, France wouldn’t have had an advantage, and both sides would’ve gone into the second half as equals. Germany had to go into the second half chasing the game, and that in the end, coupled with their inability to finish their best chances, lost them the game. France didn’t show much worthy of winning the game, other than profiting off a single mistake by the German defence, as they sat back and a lot of the time rode their luck, just sticking feet out and heading the ball out when faced up against players half a foot shorter than them. It infuriates me how they won the game, and also how I didn’t get any points for my prediction of 1-1 in normal time on the BBC predictor.
Player of the Day
Honestly, I cannot give Antoine Griezmann the award for just scoring a penalty and toe poking an easy finish home. So from the rest, I’ve got Samuel Umtiti, Hugo Lloris and Bastian Schweinsteiger on my shortlist, and I think in the end I’ll hand the award to Lloris, as he saved numerous chances tonight. Point blank headers, low edge of the box efforts and split-second volleys, he kept them all out, and when you look at the stats after the match, he saved his side from what would’ve been a potential loss had a goalkeeper with less agility and reflexes been in his place.
Goal of the Day
Well, neither were worldies, that’s for sure. I can’t give it to a penalty, so I’ll have to award France’s late second with the goal of the day tag, even if it was scrappy. It was more for Paul Pogba’s determination and perseverance than Griezmann’s light finish that the goal came to fruition, and also why it deserves any plaudits. The way he whipped in a pinpoint cross from between the by-line and Mustafi’s trailing leg deserves admiration, but for it to force Neuer into an awkward flap was the ultimate result of it, and that is what created the opportunity for Griezmann to tuck it away.
Shock of the Day
I still can’t get over that penalty, it was absolutely ludicrous and in the end a complete game-changer. These incidents really need to be looked at by an official’s panel, because we need a clear, unarguable rule laid down for once…
Day Rating: 8/10
I’m Looking Forward to…
One final period for reflection and reaction between now and Sunday, when Portugal and France will face off in what seemed an unlikely final a month ago, fighting one last 90 minute (or more) battle to see who will be ultimate champions of this fabulous edition of the European Championships. I’ll be ready to see you all again on Sunday night, hopefully with a deserving and entertaining winner to reflect on. For now though, goodnight, and I’ll see you again before you know it for one last edition of A Continental Affair!
Today brought another return to the inescapable draw of international tournament football, following an agonising delay between the quarter-final and semi-final phases, with the clash of both the underdogs and the underrated in Wales vs Portugal. It was a relief to finally get to the point where a ball would be kicked in the end, as the obsession of the British media to capitalise on this unexpected and unprecedented success has been absolutely infuriating at best (from an Englishman’s perspective at least). I’m not sure if you could tell, but I was rooting for Portugal in this match, who seem to have had little coverage if any at all, other than the idiotic article the other day asking if Renato Sanches really is 18. If nothing else, I was hoping for a win for the Portuguese to shut up all the cocky Welsh fans who were predicting an appearance in the final and even a win already. Even though I thought Poland and Belgium would’ve been a better and more fitting battle for this grand occasion, we had to accept what we had in front of us, and tuck into what I predicted pre-match would be a low-tempo, turgid affair between two sides who didn’t want to lose. Yes, there may have been both Gareth Bale and Cristiano Ronaldo on offer, but I didn’t feel they would be any difference if they were deprived of the ball in a tight, midfield-dictated match. It was up to both them, and their teammates, to change the destiny of the game, and they could definitely be inspired to by their passionate and long-suffering fans.
Even throughout the lack of consideration for Wales' opposition tonight, Portugal did make three changes to the side which went to a marathon bore-fest (at times) of extra-time and penalties against Poland, with Danilo, Bruno Alves and Raphael Guerreiro coming in for William Carvalho, Pepe and Eliseu. At first inspection, these changes seemed to weaken the line-up of Fernando Santos’ hardy unit, with the abrasive Pepe and commanding Carvalho particular losses, with the former injured and the latter suspended. But Danilo, if unspectacular in performance so far, is a solid player who can easily dictate play from a deeper midfield position, and Alves, despite not yet featuring in the tournament prior to this game, is a wily old character who can be as effective as Pepe on his day. They were sure to be right up for this match too.
Wales, on the other hand, made just the two enforced alterations to their starting XI, Andy King and James Collins replacing the banned duo of Aaron Ramsey and Ben Davies. While Ramsey and Davies are two arguably regular top-6 standard players in the BPL, King and Collins only hold the pedigree, while experienced, of bottom-half BPL performers, and that could prove to be the downfall of Chris Coleman’s side in this match. While Portugal had Champions League experience all across their ranks, from Ronaldo, Nani and Sanches to Rui Patricio and Danilo, Wales had to count on Bale, Williams and arguably Joe Allen as really their only star players at the top of their game.
From the very start of the game, we could tell this match would certainly be fiery, with the pressure high, the tackles strong and the hair preened (especially on Bale and Ronaldo, not quite so much with Joe Allen). The first 20 minutes or so didn’t match this passion in chances though, with James Collins’ headlock on Ronaldo from a cross (not even called back for a foul) restricting the only decent chance for an actual shot on target, before Bale wasted a good chance from distance on his left peg with a strike straight at Patricio. Both sides appeared only really to want to counter-attack, and that didn’t bode that well for the prospects of actual entertainment for the match. Most of the Portuguese play filtered through the pacey and skilful Joao Mario on the left side of midfield, but most of it fell apart after 20 passes or so worth of play, with someone, usually Nani or Renato Sanches, losing the ball with a shoddy pass or shot just when they were in. Wales just brought nine players back at most times, Robson-Kanu the only player holding his ground in Portugal’s half when his side were defending, successfully if you a well-organised but painfully dull clean sheet as a success. ‘Tactical’ was the word desperately used by Clive Tyldesley to attempt to salvage a poor first half for ITV’s ratings figures, and it demonstrated the lack of quality in this non-event when he begged ‘please don’t go away’ as the ad-break rolled up again. At least Roy Keane was a bit more blunt with ‘poor’.
Thank God then, for Cristiano Ronaldo. After Joao Mario’s inviting free kick into the box was headed away by Andy King, a well thought out corner followed, with Mario playing it short to an unmarked Raphael Guerreiro, who whipped in a perfect cross for Ronaldo’s irrepressible, stooping head to meet it in the box, effectively head-butting the ball (with some grace) past Wayne Hennessey. This was only four minutes into the half, forcing Chris Coleman to tear up his second half notes straight away. Well, it they were being torn in the outcome of that goal, they would’ve be ripped to shreds just three minutes later, when a seemingly well-wide low effort from that man Ronaldo again was poked in by a goal-hunting predator in Nani, sliding in for a second to Portugal’s advantage. Welsh fans must’ve been in tears, but I was relieved to finally have some excitement in the match, which Portugal had, prior to this match, hardly provided us with, barring the 3-3 draw with Hungary in what seems an eternity ago.
Coleman now had to chance his hand. Sam Vokes came on for Joe Ledley, with the Welsh seemingly swapping to a more direct 5-2-3, with an isolated front three, when not supported, of Bale, Robson-Kanu and the Burnley target man. But they still had to deal with a rampant Portuguese attack, reminded of this from Ronaldo’s dipping free kick which nicked the crossbar before flying over the goal. Then Wales went on overload for any opportunity of a goal. MK Dons striker (!?!) Simon Church came on, bringing with him a proper poacher’s style in place of an ineffective and possession-starved Robson-Kanu, then Collins was taken off for Jonny Williams, who had performed admirably so far in this tournament despite being shoved in and out of the side at late notice most of the time. What was their formation now? 4-2-4? 4-4-2? Nobody really seemed to know, with Bale attempting to passionately salvage something by interchanging between midfield and attack, but it all looked a bit desperate. This side was finally beginning to look like the collection of lower to mid-table quality BPL players with one special individual thrown in that we all thought before the tournament it was, and it was sad to see really. They were unravelling before our eyes.
It could’ve got worse for them, Wayne Hennessey spilling one shot forward only for Joao Mario to shunt wide with only the goalkeeper to bear, and also letting a Danilo shot from close-range squirm under him, leaving the ball gaping just in front of the line, before he dived on it ahead of Nani. Ronaldo had an attempt to round Hennessey denied, hitting the side netting while losing balance, but by this point Portugal were just enjoying themselves. Wales had pretty much lost hope as Patricio took his time with goal kicks, the defence played it patiently between themselves and Quaresma, Joao Moutinho and Andre Gomes came on in midfield to provide some extra energy and legs in the closing stages. You could tell that as Land of my Fathers rang out around the Park Olympique (Lyon), the Welsh fans were saying their last goodbyes to a ground-breaking tournament and a great month for them, and justified they were to do it too. They had been outstanding, but they fell at a hurdle just too unprecedented and high-stake for even Gareth Bale to pass.
Portugal deserved their place in the final for their superiority up front and at the back, in the end securing a comfortable win with the help, especially, of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo. Wales may be despondent for now, but they can take a lot of heart from what has been a truly magical month for them, with outstanding performances across the park, proving they aren’t just the one-man team a lot of people thought they were before. Let’s not forget their fans either; they were one of the highlights of the tournament for us all, never stopping their chants, their drinking or their social attitude for anyone.
Team of the Day
Portugal were close to their best today, actually trying to get shots on target in the face of Welsh defiance in the first half, and providing entertainment by continuing their positive attitude and sticking to their naturally creative roots in the second 45 minutes. They were solid at the back too, Patricio gobbling up all the chances that came to him as Jose Fonte and Bruno Alves put in a surprisingly solid performance as a partnership, silencing Robson-Kanu and later Vokes and Church by remaining calm in possession, and composed when tracking back. They put in a performance that will certainly inspire the nation for the final, putting them in with at least a fair shout against either France or Germany.
Player of the Day
What more can I say, of course it was Cristiano Ronaldo! A goal and an assists, you can’t argue with figures like that, the type which win games in a matter of moments. That is what his calibre of player does, changes games for the better through split-second decisions, and he proved that he deserves to be in the category of top 3 players in the world right now with his performance tonight. That’s without mentioning his desire to keep tracking back and organising his side as captain, providing a shoulder to lean on and trust to perform when others need the confidence. He may be accused of being selfish and arrogant in some games, but there is no doubting his ability to captain his country, leading by example in a pretty ordinary side which would have little without his name in it, but would still be a tight unit, just without a leader.
Goal of the Day
While I thought Nani’s slide took great instinct and composure to finish, Ronaldo’s header was a sight to behold from the stands and television screens across the world, as he thumped it in with ease for a player of his talent. The short corner was well-planned and carried out, reaching its target with precision, leaving the captain with only the finish to provide, which we all knew he could do with his eyes closed.
Shock of the Day
Mark Bowen’s (who’s he?) commentary for ITV tonight was a crime to the name of all good sports broadcasters in history. His dreary, zombie-like tones made me want to punch him just as much as I would like to with Coleman, as well as rip my ears off before I could hear him respond. Add to this the fact he only spoke about Wales for the entire 90 minutes, and Bowen safely raced into the pole position for worst commentator in my living memory. He may be a former Welsh international and current Stoke City assistant manager, but his qualifications as a coach should never have led to anything as painful as this to our ears. At least ITV have found someone who could form a double-act, or maybe have a bore-off, with James Milner now!
The way Mark Pougatch and his all-British, all-dreary (barring Roy Keane for both) panel just passed off Portugal as Ronaldo and no-one else after the full time whistle was a disgrace, just demonstrating how ignorant and unworthy of their wage they are. These are the guys whose opinions are supposed to matter? They might as well go and get a group of fans from the pub down the road to replace them if that is their standard of analysis. Who do they think they are?
Day Rating: 7/10
I’m Looking Forward to…
A fantastic looking prospect of a match-up tomorrow, pre-tournament bookies favourites and hosts France coming up in a clash of the titans with World champions and current favourites Germany in Marseille. This is a match worthy of a final, with billing and hype equivalent of a World Cup decider, with billions of viewers and fans all ready to tune in to watch some momentous, history-defining football. It should be a top, top match tomorrow.
Following the fallout of England’s exit to the hands of a certain nation on the very North West edge of the Eurasian plate, it seemed like the world’s media were suddenly intrinsically obsessed with that volcanic rock with a population, as we very well know, close to that of Leicester. It seemed like, according to them, we were about to see another plucky, victorious underdog, à la Greece 2004, in the shape of hardy Iceland. Realistically, we saw their win as a one-off result, and we expected highly-rated France to cruelly end their tale here. But before any of that could be certain, both sides had to prove their worth in front of thousands of their lucky sets of supporters. It was billed as the Vikings vs Napoleon’s clearly superior but cocky army, a battle transcending cultures, historical ties and backgrounds, a clash to beat all before it, a tie to decide the last of the final four remaining sides in the tournament.
Didier Deschamps was forced into two changes to his so far winning, but unconvincing, team, with the suspended Adil Rami and N’Golo Kante making way for the less impressive but still strong Samuel Umtiti and Moussa Sissoko. A Liga BBVA centre-back swapping out for a Barcelona-bound player of the same position and a pacey, hard-working Premier League midfielder dropping out of the side for another. When you put it that way, it appeared France really did have the blessed-in-all-regions squad that everyone raved about in the build up to the tournament, that many thought would be talented enough to easily reach at least the final. In reality, they had been tested to an extent already in the tournament, and they were sure to face another tough test, which honestly we all thought they would turn out victors in. Their opponents, co-managed by both Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson, stuck with the same (surely fatigued) starting XI that had taken them this far, partly in (possible) distrust of the rest of the squad, and also in faith of the so-far successful system. Shockingly enough, only two (Ragnar Sigurdsson and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson) of their starting line-up were bereft of a booking so far in the competition, so Iceland had two options if they wanted to win; go gung-ho and risk losing some important players for the next round, or refrain from tackling and risk conceding. It put them in an immediate quandary, but France had their own without Kante and Rami in the game. One thing was for sure; the game was going to be interesting at the very least, and breath-taking at its best.
France, after their rousing rendition of Les Marseilles, appeared to set-up with a slightly differing formation and style to their previous games; dropping the questionably effective 4-3-3 for a more organised and traditional 4-4-2, Giroud and Griezmann spearheading the attack. Behind them, they had the BPL pairing of Payet and Sissoko, highly contrasting in their styles, on the wings, and the rangy, skilful duo of Pogba and Matuidi in the middle of the park. So Deschamps was going to copy the methods of Joachim Low and Germany last night, recreating the tactics of their opponents, just with more talented players. If you think about it, it is a stroke of managerial genius, nullifying the opposition by setting up in the same formations, and getting into the heads of their foes at the same time, creating an aura of invincibility. And it didn’t take too long for this to pay off; just 12 minutes in, Olivier Giroud collecting a perfect Matuidi through-ball between a gaggle of Icelandic players on the edge of the left hand of Iceland’s box, leathered a clean finish through Halldórsson’s legs to put France 1-0 up. In the end, it was pretty simple, showing the gulf in quality, both of technical skills and organisation, between the two sides.
Iceland had been struggling to link patient play up, and were rushing their game, perhaps in intimidation of the vocal French domination of the crowd in the national stadium, the Stade de France. Their task became far tougher just seven minutes after the opening goal, when from Antoine Griezmann’s tightly whipped corner, Paul Pogba sprang like a sea lion above a group of Icelandic defenders, who you could not criticise as they did mark their man, and nodded in a second with a bullet header typical of any man of his height. Set pieces are meant to be the bread and butter of any plucky challengers to the crown like Iceland, Wales or Leicester, but France even had their opponents pinned down here, and you could be certain this was all part of Deschamps’ plan.
Iceland now turned to attempting to outrun their adversaries, but even that failed, as they realised that they had definitely met their match against a world-class team in this tournament. They were playing as well as they could, ‘giving 100%’ as any insufferable manager would argue, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough. France were playing incredibly, putting England to shame by proving how easy it should’ve been (but also sending a message that they would’ve smashed Roy Hodgson’s barmy army had they reached this stage).
That pain was only compounded for Iceland as Dimitri Payet stroked in another trademark clinical finish from just outside the box, increasing the margin to 3-0 on 42 minutes. It was easy for the French, Griezmann just handing the ball to the West Ham player on the edge of the box, who he trusted to do the rest with the low, secretive finish. This time, the Icelandic defence could be blamed, as none of them pressured him by any stretch of the imagination, allowing him to score a beautiful, but still such an avoidable, goal. I couldn’t even believe what happened next. Probably only 60 seconds or so later, and from Olivier Giroud’s casual pass, Antoine Griezmann rushed away from the leggy Icelandic defence, cut them wide open, and chipped in a ruthlessly cheeky finish over Halldórsson. They were putting Iceland, who had been so impressive prior to this match, to the sword, and they were doing it in the most carefree and clinical way imaginable. 4-0 at half-time, and I was totally shocked by how good the French had actually been. This was an unprecedented, unpredictable, astounding thrashing happening right in front of our eyes, and it was glorious to watch, unless you were an Iceland fan of course. France had won the game with one half of absolute magic, crippling a physically and mentally fatigued Iceland team with four cracking goals, each worthy of settling any game in this tournament. In all realistic analysis, this was probably going to turn out as the most impressive and destructive half of football any side was going to play over the course of Euro 2016, it was that good.
Alfred Finnbogason (which I love to say in an Irish accent) came on up front for Iceland at half time, but they could’ve brought Pele, Maradona and Kevin Davies all out of retirement and they still would have no chance of getting back in this game. They were done and dusted, but you could applaud them for at least trying to show some endeavour to save their place in the competition, or at the very least restore some parity for the sake of their passionate and loyal fans. Just ten minutes into the half, they did do just that, with Kolbeinn Sigthorsson sliding in for a bottom-corner, close range toe-poke from a Gylfi Sigurdsson (finally making a notable impact at this tournament) cross from the right wing.
Unfortunately enough for the Icelanders, just three minutes later, Olivier Giroud headed in a simple chance from Dimitri Payet’s free kick, eerily similar to his goal which opened up Euro 2016 against Romania over three weeks ago now. The free-kick took skill, control and guile, and after the perfection of that from Payet, all the Arsenal striker had to do was close his eyes, flick the ball on with his well-gelled hair, and wait to fall back down to earth before celebrating with the 60,000 or so French fans or so in the stadium.
Andre-Pierre Gignac and Eliaquim Mangala came on for the previously booked Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny for Didier Deschamps’ side, as the whole game kind of slowed to a halt, France protecting their best players while Iceland didn’t have enough of the ball to start up any promising moves. The game sort of broke down from 65 minutes on, with even the commentators failing to get exciting by anything other than another substitution, this time Kingsley Coman replacing Dimitri Payet. Then, as the match drew closer to a conclusion, veteran and Icelandic hero Eidur Gudjohnsen came on in place of Sigthorsson, and surprisingly enough made an immediate impact to the game. Well, he didn’t score or grab an assist, but he was involved in a tidy little move, patiently building play up, until Birkir Bjarnason headed in his second goal of the tournament from an Ari Skulason cross on the left wing. It made a sweet end to the story for the Icelandic team at Euro 2016, demonstrating the never-say-die attitude and team ethic of the whole nation, working together across the pitch to get what they deserve from battle.
At the final whistle though, it was the French players who were comfortable victors, running out 5-2 winners on the night, in a highly entertaining and impressive rout. The defences weren’t all that bad in this match; it was just that the attacks were on fire and both ends of the park. Finishing (for once in the tournament) was clinical, through balls more often than not found their intended targets, and the crosses were continually pinpoint, picking out the best man for the job whenever the opportunity arose. Both sides can take a lot of credit from this match, however many they conceded, because after the tactical standoff of last night, we needed a fast, open match, and that is what these two delivered for us; the fans. Congratulations Iceland on a great and remarkable tournament that we will all remember for years, and good luck to France in the next round, where you will have to improve to match Germany.
Team of the Day
France had it all tonight; shooting, crossing, short passing, patience, determination and skill, they showed a whole range of demographics required of a side which wants to win a tournament, and thoroughly smashed their opponents.
Player of the Day
Paul Pogba had it all in my opinion today, mixing cool, calm build up with incisive, penetrative forward play, in the end being one of a number of reasons that his side won with ease today. He hardly put a foot wrong, bossing possession in the middle of the park against a clearly intimidated Icelandic set of players, and his towering header capped his whole performance off, opening up the floodgates after a stagnating period following Giroud’s opener.
Goal of the Day
Well, there’s plenty to choose from, if nothing else! For me, it’s between Giroud’s opener, Payet’s carved strike and Griezmann’s dink, and when pushed, I would hand Griezmann the gold medal. The way he outpaced the tired Icelandic defence, picked his head up to see where Halldórsson was approaching from, and just eased a chip over the goalkeeper was so tidy, that I think he deserves this award just for how great the goal looked, no matter how much skill it took. It was an incredibly sweet finish that just topped off a perfect-in-all-ways first half for the French, summing up how well they can play as both a team and individuals.
Shock of the Day
Glenn Hoddle’s use of the word ‘swaz’ during commentary on this game made me cringe so much, listening to him trying to sound interesting and a bit nutty, but failing on so many levels. Stick to the anti-disability remarks and geriatric ramblings about what you remember about the 90’s, Glenn, we don’t want you to try and understand today’s society.
Day Rating: 9/10
I’m Looking Forward to…
Another period of rest, before two classic and massive semi-finals which will go down in the history books, deciding two big finalists for the whole competition. We are drawing ever closer to the conclusion of all this great football, with the final in just a week’s time, so we should all get a good rest in before another stretch of decisive, ground-breaking football to go down in history. Goodnight, and I’ll see you on Wednesday!
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!