It has all come down to this. Portugal face France in the Euro 2016 final, with Antoine Griezmann and Cristiano Ronaldo facing off in Paris.
For Ronaldo and Portugal — who have lost their past 10 games in a row to Les Bleus — they will be aiming to go one further than in 2004, when they were stunned by Greeze in the final.
Hosts France won this tournament on home soil back in 1982 and the World Cup too while at home, in 1998. But can they do it again?
Tom Kundert (Portugal) and Jonathan Johnson (France) preview Sunday’s match.
Make a case why you deserve to win this one
Tom Kundert: Portugal have reached the semifinals of five of the nine European Championships and World Cups played since 2000. The country has also spawned the most high-profile footballer (Cristiano Ronaldo) and most successful coach (Jose Mourinho) in that time.
For a small nation of less than 11 million inhabitants, these facts are a consequence of just how much football means to most of the population. It isn’t by chance you’ve probably never heard of a famous Portuguese tennis player, or golfer or athlete. Portugal is besotted with football. TV news constantly opens with action from Benfica, Porto or Sporting’s latest matches, three sports dailies permanently top the newspaper circulation figures and even the most banal of preseason friendlies are often shown live on terrestrial channels.
With the heartbreaks of Euro 2000, Euro 2004 and World Cup 2006 still relatively fresh in memory, when brilliantly talented Portugal teams thrilled the world but were ultimately denied silverware, nobody will complain at the more functional approach adopted by Fernando Santos this time round if it ends with A Selecao triumphing in the Stade de France on Sunday.
Bar the one obvious exception, this side, although talented, is bereft of the dazzlingly creative genius of a Luis Figo, a Rui Costa or a Deco, but it has shown a grit, heart and determination not usually associated with Portuguese teams, thanks in no short measure to the immense spirit of togetherness Santos has nurtured among the squad, every member of which has been used in this tournament apart from the backup goalkeepers.
Portugal have come close to a trophy on several occasions, none more so than when losing the final on home soil to underdogs Greece despite being big favourites in 2004. Time for a role reversal.
Jonathan Johnson: The hosts deserve to win their own tournament because they prevented world champions Germany from possessing the World Cup and European Championship titles at the same time by beating them in the semifinal. Didier Deschamps’ men have been the most consistent side this summer and they have improved with each passing round. They are yet to slip up and do not look like doing so at this stage.
Buoyed by fervent home support, Les Bleus can complete the process of restoring the public’s faith in their national team by beating Portugal on Sunday. The supporters began to change their mind over this French side when they managed to recover against Ukraine to qualify for the World Cup in Brazil and they have been able to identify more and more with this group of players since then.
To win Euro 2016, considering where they were back in November of 2013, would cap a remarkable turnaround in France’s fortunes.
Who would you rather have on Sunday: Ronaldo or Griezmann?
TK: Ronaldo has dedicated every minute of every day of his life since childhood to getting the most out of an extraordinary God-given talent for football. The single-mindedness to be the best has turned him into one of the all-time greats of the world’s most popular game, and there will be no more motivated man on the pitch in Sunday’s final. Multiple winner of team and individual awards, the Portugal captain has often repeated that winning silverware with his country is the one thing missing from his collection.
After a slow start, Griezmann has shown magnificent form at Euro 2016 and will be looking to crown a memorable tournament with another match-winning performance in the decisive match. Superb player as Griezmann is, it is the boy from Madeira, obsessed by a quest for greatness since he left the Atlantic island’s shores to chase his dream at 12 years of age, who will be rewarded on Sunday.
JJ: Griezmann. In the form that he is in right now, everything the Atletico Madrid star touches turns into goals. Although Ronaldo is an exceptionally talented player and capable of winning matches on the biggest stages almost single-handedly, the Real Madrid man has only fleetingly shown his best this tournament.
While it is possible that the Portuguese turns it on for this one game, Griezmann has been more consistent and crucially has a team around him that are set up perfectly to bring the best out of him instead of relying on him to put the team on his shoulders and carry them.
There are things that Ronaldo can do that Griezmann cannot, but with the team Deschamps has assembled, the Frenchman is in a better position to keep putting the ball in the back of the net.
What’s your biggest strength and biggest weakness?
TK: Portugal’s biggest strength at Euro 2016 has been the unity shown, with all players making key contributions at one point or another along the road to the final. In the knockout stages the defence has looked rock solid, conceding just once in 330 minutes and barely giving the opposition a sniff at goal.
Both full-backs are excellent crossers and, with Portugal likely to play with a narrow four-man midfield, both Cedric Soares and Raphael Guerreiro will seek to make raids down the flanks and provide assists for Ronaldo to show, like in the semifinal against Wales, that he is one of the best headers of the ball in the business.
If France do a good job at shackling the talent of Portugal’s front two, Portugal will struggle to find the net. Nani and Ronaldo have scored six of Portugal’s eight goals at Euro 2016, and they created the other two. None of the other midfielders are natural goal scorers.
Griezmann will look to exploit a lack of pace in the centre of Portugal’s defence, especially if Pepe does not play or is less than 100 percent fit.
JJ: France’s biggest strength is their attack, which has been clinical so far in the latter stages. With Griezmann in red-hot form and Olivier Giroud playing an extremely underrated role as the hosts’ target man, Les Bleus have looked capable of scoring against anybody.
Also in the hosts’ favour is this indomitable sense of unity within the team. Everybody has a role to play under Deschamps and the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000-winning former captain has fostered a real sense of camaraderie that has kept self-belief high all tournament — even when making a slow start.
The main area of concern is the defence. Although captain Hugo Lloris and youngster Samuel Umtiti performed extremely well against Germany, teams can still create chances against the two-time winners. With a player like Ronaldo on the opposing side, the French cannot afford any lapses of concentration in Saint-Denis this weekend.
TK: Pepe vs. Griezmann
Portugal have not created many chances at Euro 2016 and that probably won’t change in the final. But apart from the wild 3-3 against Hungary, their defence has looked solid, even more so since the knockout stages.
One goal may be enough to lift the trophy for Portugal. Whether or not this scenario will come to pass will depend on how well the Portuguese defence deal with the electric Griezmann, who was close to unplayable against Germany in the semifinal whenever he dropped back with his quick feet and even quicker wits.
Pepe has been outstanding for A Selecao at Euro 2016 and if there was one player apart from Ronaldo that Portuguese fans would not want to see missing in action it is the Brazilian-born central defender. Thankfully, the untimely injury that forced him out of the Wales game appears not to be serious and Pepe should be ready to resume the Real Madrid-Atletico Madrid rivalry with the diminutive French forward on Sunday.
JJ: Pepe vs. Giroud
Assuming that he is fit enough to start for Portugal, Pepe’s battle against Giroud will go a long way towards the outcome of the match. The Real Madrid defender has arguably been A Selecao‘s most consistent performer so far, while the Arsenal target man has been one of France’s most influential.
If Giroud succeeds in his tussle with Pepe, then he will bring the likes of Griezmann and Payet into the action and that is where the match can be won.
TK: Portugal 1-0 France. It is time. Portugal will end their long wait for a trophy with a tight victory. Euro 2004 revisited, only the other way round from Portugal’s perspective.
JJ: Portugal 0-2 France. After coming this far, the hosts will hold their nerve and claim their third Euro title.