Portugal grinds its way to Euro 2016 title, overcoming Ronaldo injury
PARIS – Portugal won a single game at this European Championship in normal time. It got through the group stage as a best third-place team. It has played grim, attritional football throughout the knockout phase. But, for the first time, it has a European trophy. When the ends are glory, nobody in Portugal will mind much to quibble about the methods after a 1-0 triumph in extra time over France on Sunday.
Portugal won the Euros because of its defense. After the shambles of the 3-3 draw against Hungary to finish the group stage, manager Fernando Santos retreated into the utmost pragmatism and created a unit that conceded a single goal in 420 minutes of knockout play. Scoring goals, the message seemed to be, would look after itself. And so it proved. Even without Cristiano Ronaldo, forced off after 25 minutes with a knee injury, Portugal found a 109th-minute winner, hammered home from about 30 yards by Lille striker Eder–an unlikely source for a unlikely victory.
Until then, the game had been largely representative of the tournament. There have been flashes of quality and flare, but for the most part the play has been drab and cautious, blanket defenses overwhelming inadequate attacks. Much was sideways, much was backward, much was predictable and France, faced with the obduracy of Portugal’s defending, looked short of ideas and inspiration.
This was never going to follow the pattern of the Germany game, of France being forced back and striking on the break. Portugal’s method since the end of the group stage has been to absorb pressure, using the energy of its midfield, along with the enormous presence of William Carvalho, all clanking movement and octopoid limbs, to stifle the opposition. So it proved again, France being allowed to dominate possession as Portugal hastened to fill gaps.
Portugal’s attacking threat, restricted throughout the tournament, was diminished further by an early challenge by Dimitri Payet on Ronaldo. No foul was given but, as Payet won the ball with his left foot, his right knee banged into Ronaldo’s left. The Real Madrid forward collapsed in obvious distress, weeping, but struggled on with heavy strapping before finally accepting the damage was too serious and going off for Ricardo Quaresma. A Cedric foul on Payet 10 minutes later seemed a fairly clear attempt at gaining retribution.
As against Germany, there was an early French surge, but although an Antoine Griezmann header drew a fine save from Rui Patricio after Pepe’s slip had given Payet time to float a ball into the box, it produced no breakthrough.
The singing of La Marseillaise prior to the match had been notably poor, one half of the stadium getting a syllable or two ahead of the other half–perhaps the inevitable result of France’s fans spending too much time dabbling with the Iceland thunder clap rather than practicing what they’re good at–and that served as a metaphor for a disjointed France display.
Perhaps the stoppages for Ronaldo to receive treatment upset the rhythm, perhaps his disappearance affected its concentration, perhaps Portugal held the ball rather better after Ronaldo had gone off rather than repeatedly trying to feed him quickly, but there was little fluency in France's attack, little sense that a breakthrough might come. There was one smart turn and shot from Moussa Sissoko, preferred on the flank as Deschamps stuck to his 4-2-3-1, but that was a rare moment of incisiveness in a largely drab first half.
It didn’t improve much after halftime.
Portugal did what it set out to do and made the game one of grim attrition. Payet, France’s hero in the group stage, was removed just before the hour for Kingsley Coman, the thinking presumably being that his pace might help penetrate the Portuguese ranks. He did land a cross on Griezmann’s head midway through the half–but the Atletico Madrid forward put the chance over–and then created a chance for Giroud that was well-saved by Rui Patricio.
The Portugal goalkeeper also made a full-length diving save to keep out a long-range blast from Sissoko, while Nani almost caught out Hugo Lloris with a deft chip. And then, quite unexpectedly, from nothing, substitute Andre-Pierre Gignac turned Pepe in injury time and rolled a shot past Rui Patricio and saw it bounce back off the post. A sudden smattering of chances could disguise the fact that there was little pattern to the game, little quality. As Portugal vs. France clashes go, this was far more World Cup 2006 than Euro 84.
Quite suddenly, just after halftime in extra time, there came a furry of chances in a Portuguese rally. Raphael Guerreiro hit the bar with a free kick and then, within a minute, Eder drifted in from the left and struck a fearsome shot past Hugo Lloris. It was a goal whose quality was utterly out of keeping with the game and, in truth, the tournament.
But nobody in Portugal will care about that.