France v. Portugal, a preview [UPDATED: Portugal wins]

France will play Portugal tomorrow for the Euro 2016 championship. France is heavily favored, and rightly so.

France is the home team. Its squad is superior to Portugal’s. And France has been the better team throughout the tournament.

France has won five out of its six matches in regulation time (the exception was draw against a pretty good Swiss side). Portugal has only won one of its six matches in the 90 minutes. That was the semi-finals against depleted Wales.

France is coming off of a 2-0 victory over Germany, about which more later. Portugal can’t point to any result that’s nearly as impressive.

I don’t mean to say that Portugal is without hope. It seems to me that Portugal has a path to victory: play ultra-defensively and try to sucker punch France with a breakaway goal or goal on a set piece.

This was the approach used by Greece to win Euro 2004 against all odds (in the final Greece beat Portugal 1-0). It was the formula Holland almost succeeded with in the 2010 World Cup final against a clearly superior Spanish side.

And it’s a formula Portugal is well suited to employ. Who better than Cristiano Ronaldo to poach a goal against the run of play. If Ronaldo can’t do it, Nani isn’t a bad candidate.

Moreover, Portugal proved it can stifle a potent offense by holding a very good Croatian team scoreless in the Round of 16 match. Other than Pepe (who reportedly will be fit for the final), Portugal has no great individual defender. But the back four is well organized and the defensive midfielders are effective, albeit crude at times.

Portuguese coach Fernando Santos showed at the last World Cup that he knows how to cancel out good attacking teams. Greece, the team he managed in Brazil, proved adept at this approach (Santos was not, however, the manager when Greece won Euro 2004).

France is an even stronger attacking force than Croatia. As I said in my preview of the tournament, its midfield-forward sextet is second to none in Europe. However, fatigue may be a factor after the tough semifinal against Germany. France, having played on Thursday, has one day less than Portugal to recover.

All of that said, I’m not expecting Portugal to win. I am expecting a competitive match.

Now a word about the France-Germany semifinal which, all things considered, is probably the match of the tournament (Croatia 2, Spain 1 was the pick of the Group Stage matches for me).

France was lucky to beat Germany. First, Germany was missing three starters, two of whom (Khedira and Hummels) are world class stars in my opinion. When Boateng came off injured, Germany had to play most of the second half without four starters, three of whom are world class.

Second, both France goals were the result of errors by Germany. Take those two plays away and, if anything, Germany had the better of it.

The errors, moreover, were related to the injuries. The first was the hand ball against Schweinsteiger in the penalty area. Schweinsteiger is one of Germany’s all-time greats. However, he isn’t what he used to be, and might not have been in the lineup had Khedira been available.

The second goal occurred when Pogba robbed Kimmich of the ball. Kimmich is a regular starter. However, Pogba then rounded Mustafi (the ex-Everton trainee) like he wasn’t there to set up the goal. Mustafi was only playing because Boateng had come off injured.

In my preview I wrote of Germany:

Greatness in European football is established by following up a World Cup title with triumph at the Euros (or visa versa). This generation of German players may have the potential for greatness. Does it have the hunger?

I believe the players did have the necessary hunger, but Germany couldn’t field its best eleven for the showdown with France (that, and the fact that its star attacker Muller couldn’t score to save his life).

Germany was the youngest squad at the Euros. I think the Germans can be installed as the early favorites to win the 2018 World Cup.

Of France, I wrote:

The question mark for Les Bleus is the back four. Among the eight candidates for playing time, only Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny inspires confidence.

This comment held up well throughout most of the tournament, though Sagna at right back has played pretty well. But France caught a break when Rami, Koscielny’s partner in central defense, was injured.

This forced Deschamps, the manager, to install Umtiti in defense, and he was fabulous against Germany. (I had anticipated that Rami’s injury might be a blessing in disguise, but thought that Mangala, not Umtiti, would be the upgrade).

I haven’t seen enough of Umtiti to say whether his performance against the Germans was a fluke. However, Barcelona has bought him from Lyon, and Barca isn’t in the habit of splashing cash for mugs.

The Umtiti-Ronaldo match-up will be one to watch tomorrow and, if Umtiti wins a starting job for his new club, one to watch this coming season in “El Clasico” — the showdowns between Barcelona and Real Madrid.

We always hope for a pulsating final in major soccer tournaments. We very rarely get one, and I don’t expect tomorrow to be an exception. Instead, we’re likely to get a “tactical” match. But for many soccer fans, those can be enjoyable too.

UPDATE: Portugal pulled off the upset, 1-0, in the second half of the 30 minutes of extra time. The Portuguese defended resolutely, rode their luck (France apparently used its up in the Germany match), and struck when France (playing on just two days of rest) exhausted itself.

Cristiano Ronaldo had to leave the match early due to injury. The winning goal was by Eder, a mediocre player at this level who failed to score in 13 appearances this year for Swansea City and had netted only a few times in nearly 30 matches for Portugal.

This was 2004 all over again, except that Greece had to defeat better opposition (including Portugal, the host) to pull off its improbable title run that year.

Euro 2016 was a rather poor affair. Fittingly, it produced a mediocre champion.