France v Portugal: A cracker of a final on the cards

The final, which would be a highly energetic affair, will have its sprinkling of stardust in France’s Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet, Paul Pogba, Olivier Giroud and of course Portugal and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

Portugal's Nani celebrates with Cristiano Ronaldo (left) after scoring his team's second goal against Wales in the semifinals of the EURO 2016. Nani and Ronaldo have often dropped deep, playing in their own half when their team has lost possession.   -  REUTERS

France's Antoine Griezmann (left) and Olivier Giroud are a perfect pair.   -  AP

It’s time for the final! After a month-long gruelling schedule, the European Championship has reached its end with host France taking on a determined Portugal at the Stade de France.

The affair, which I expect to be highly energetic, if often cagey, will have its sprinkling of stardust in France’s Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet, Paul Pogba, Olivier Giroud and of course Portugal and Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo.

 

Ronaldo’s only tryst with a final, in national colours, ended in disappointment when an unfancied Greece spoiled Portugal’s party in 2004. The young Portuguese winger was part of a squad that included iconic names like Luis Figo, Rui Costa, Nuno Gomes and they where the favourites to lift the Cup on home soil. But ‘King’ Otto Rehhagel’s defensively astute team stole the ‘Golden Generation’s’ thunder.

>PREVIEW: Portugal takes on host France in EURO final

In a role reversal, Portugal will start as the clear underdog against France, and Ronaldo will do well to distance himself from the burden of expectation. The former Ballon d’Or winner is rightly considered as one of the best players in the world alongside Argentina and Barcelona’s Lionel Messi. The diminutive playmaker’s heartbreak recently at the COPA will surely have taught CR7 a lesson.

In football, individuals can win matches, but only teams can win tournaments. The personal and collective accolades of the duo are as much a work of their teams and team-mates. Messi or Ronaldo won’t have won the plethora of titles if they were playing for teams like Getafe or Levante in La Liga.



  The pressure to bring their form while playing in national colours is immense on these superstars. Ronaldo will need to forget about the outcome of this game and try to enjoy the moment. The team’s underdog tag might help him here. The forward has tempered his game to suit the style — or as others say, the lack of it — of his team’s play in this competition. Portugal, junking its free-flowing football, has sat deep, while trying to hit teams on the counter. The ploy has worked well in this EURO with teams like Iceland, Wales, Hungary and Italy reaping rewards despite meagre resources in terms of talent.

Ronaldo and his strike partner Nani have often dropped deep, playing in their own half when their team has lost possession. Portugal will again look to cede much of the ball to France with Joao Mario and Adrien Silva working as the engine in the midfield.

The punch in the attack will come from the ever impressive Renato Sanches. The Bayern Munich teenager has impressed in his role as the chief orchestrator in a midfield diamond — with Nani and Ronaldo playing as wide strikers — bringing energy on the field with his dynamism and straight approach towards goal. The form of Sanches has kept the experienced Joao Moutinho on the bench, but the AS Monaco-based creator will be a handful when coming off the bench. The player had formed a telepathic understanding with Ronaldo in the last EURO, when Portugal lost 2-4 (in penalties) to Italy in the semifinals. Moutinho’s sublime lob against Poland had found his skipper in space behind the defence, but an unusually harried Ronaldo had failed to make a connection.

France which outsmarted Germany — with enough help from an arms-trailing Bastian Schweinsteiger and fortune — will look to start with a 4-5-1 formation, with Griezmann playing in the hole behind the improving Giroud. The Arsenal target-man has been an ideal foil to Atletico Madrid’s Griezmann, who has been a menace to opposition defence, feeding on the knockdowns from the striker. The striking efficiency of the French has been a major reason behind its success with Griezmann (6), Giroud (3) and Payet already scoring 12 goals in the competition. The team was not overconfident after its comfortable win over Iceland and was ready to grind out a result against the domineering Germans.

Matuidi and Pogba are expected to start at the base of the midfield in the 4-2-3-1 system (a variant of 4-5-1). The shape will offer room to Portugal’s full-backs but the defensive work of Laurent Koscielny and Samuel Umtiti will give Didier Deschamps the confidence to stick to his plan.

The 1998 World Cup-winning skipper has managed to imbibe a sense of togetherness among the French players, who have been notorious for their rumblings in the dressing room. There is no hassle, no conflict with the team having a perfect mix of youth — Pogba is just 23 — and experience — Evra is 35. Rumours about discontent in the camp when Pogba and Griezmann were dropped after the first game were unfound.

France is likely to make the most of the home support in the finale, drawing inspiration from the fans. I have always enjoyed playing in front of passionate home fans. We have won Nehru Cup finals (2007, 2009, 2012) in New Delhi and the 2008 AFC Challenge Cup final in Hyderabad beating strong opponents like Syria, Cameroon B and Myanmar. The spirit of the fans always boosts your energy.

I, however, see both the teams not being overly adventurous. Expect a sedate start with both teams taking the first 20 minutes to judge the opposition’s play, with the battle largely confined to the middle of the park. A penalty shootout may well be on the cards. I will call 55-45 in France’s favour.

The championship has championed the cause of humanity. Football has won over and soothed the nerves of a continent that has been on the boil over recent terror attacks. There have been a lot of positives with sport ultimately conquering all things bad in the world.