When it came to landing knockout blow at Euro 2016, France sucker-punched by plucky Portugal
They seemed to have done the hard bit. France’s semi-final clash with world champions Germany was widely considered the hosts’ most difficult task at Euro 2016, and their successful negotiation of that tie on Thursday night was supposed to have opened the door for a third tournament triumph on their own soil.
Portugal, though, clearly had not read the script, recording a 1-0 win in Sunday’s final to claim their first trophy and condemn France to failure in their own back yard.
Unlike in 1984 and 1998, when various French players drew the adulation of supporters in Paris after winning the final of a major competition, the class of 2016 lay stricken on the Stade de France turf as their opponents’ celebrations erupted around them.
It is a bitter blow for Didier Deschamps and his players, who had looked to be building towards something throughout the knockout stage. They were the better team on the night, too, creating more clear-cut chances and limiting Portugal to very few opportunities at the other end. But France still leave with a huge sense of regret hanging over them: while they did fashion a couple of golden openings, their performance was not strong enough for them to feel especially hard done by in defeat.
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Put simply, France could have done a whole lot more on Sunday evening. There was a general lack of urgency and intensity to their play in the first period, with Moussa Sissoko’s driving runs from midfield the only source of spark in the opposition’s half of the field.
Cristiano Ronaldo’s early withdrawal should have been the catalyst for the hosts to push on and register continual knocks on Portugal’s defensive door, but instead they let the game drift and allowed Fernando Santos’s men to settle down and rediscover their confidence.
France did improve after the interval – particularly once the lively Kingsley Coman entered the fray around the hour-mark – and had Antoine Griezmann’s header fallen a few inches under rather than over the bar they probably would have won the final comfortably. It did not, though, and Olivier Giroud and Andre-Pierre Gignac’s failure to convert from similarly promising positions ultimately allowed Portugal to take the title thanks to a sucker-punch in extra time.
It is not immediately clear where France go from here. Having qualified for the tournament automatically, they had not played a competitive match in almost two years before the Championship’s curtain-raiser against Romania last month.
This competition had been in their sights for so long, visions of winning it ingrained in their collective mind ever since they were awarded hosting rights in 2010, that it could take some time to recover from their failure at the final hurdle.
That 2-1 victory over the Romanians feels like a very long time ago now. France were a little fortunate to pick up all three points on that occasion, with Dimitri Payet’s moment of magic in the 89th minute ensuring they got off to the best possible start. It certainly took Deschamps’s charges a while to get going: they also left it late before beating Albania 2-0 in their second outing in Group A, while a goalless draw against Switzerland did not exactly set pulses racing.
The second half against the Republic of Ireland in the round of 16 was the first time France really showed what they were capable of, with the excellent Griezmann leading the charge as the hosts came from behind to win 2-1.
A 5-2 thrashing of Iceland in the quarter-finals also featured some fine attacking play, and the aforementioned triumph over Germany put France in pole position to claim their first piece of silverware in 18 years.
Instead, it is Portugal’s name that has been engraved on the trophy. Santos’s side deserve great credit for making history, but France only have themselves to blame.
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Updated: July 11, 2016 04:00 AM