Sport360’s deputy editor James Piercy looks at the key questions for both France and Portugal that could potentially define the outcome of Sunday’s Euro 2016 showpiece.
Who do you think will emerge victorious from the Euro 2016 final and what are your predictions for the outcome of the game?
CAN FRANCE DRAW PORTUGAL OUT OF THEIR SHELL?
After underwhelming performances against Iceland, Austria and Hungary, when they controlled possession with 70 per cent, 57.7 per cent and 62.3 per cent respectively, Fernando Santos’ Portugal seem to have settled on a formula.
That is, to cede the ball while maintaining a rigid and deep defensive line, restricting any space behind them and then use the pace and drive of Nani, Cristiano Ronaldo and now Renato Sanches.
You can argue they were fortunate against Croatia and Poland, with both matches lasting 120 minutes, but ultimately they conceded just five shots on target in 240 minutes, while against Wales it required some inspiration from Ronaldo, just as the plan requires.
Santos is unlikely to change it come the final, especially with such a fast-paced and vibrant French attack. But if Les Bleus want to win, they have to force Portugal’s hand.
Because of their midfield diamond, any consistent width Portugal have in possession comes from full-backs Raphael Guerreiro and Cedric, so France must exploit the space in behind as well as trying to get Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann isolating and running at Pepe and Jose Fonte.
Santos will look to slow the French down – expect tactical fouls – meaning the hosts will have to keep the foot on the accelerator.
HAS EITHER DEFENCE BEEN PROPERLY TESTED?
Both sides emerged from the two most manageable groups in the tournament.
France barely needed to get out of third gear, albeit relying on late goals to overcome the obdurate defences of Romania and Albania – which could prove good preparation for the final – while Portugal were unconvincing with three draws.
That inability to win inside 90 minutes continued into the knockouts before breaking their duck against Wales.
What connects five of those six – Hungary the exception – was their reluctance to commit too many forward for fear of Portugal’s counter attacking.
Consequently, a central defence lacking in pace hasn’t really faced the attacking play they should encounter tonight; with Griezmann and Payet’s movement, Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi breaking from deep and Olivier Giroud’s aerial presence.
The French, up to the semi-final enjoyed a relatively stress-free journey with Republic of Ireland and Iceland, whose strengths don’t lie in the final third.
But when they did play Germany it was against an out-of-form Thomas Muller and a midfield full of passers, but no penetration.
WINNING THE BATTLE IN THE AIR
France have scored four goals from set-pieces and Portugal two and while Ronaldo may stand over every single free-kick within range before finding the centre of the wall, corners and free-kicks could prove integral to deciding this final.
Payet’s delivery has been fantastic and in 6ft4ins Giroud, 6ft3ins Pogba and 6ft2ins Moussa Sissoko, he has three obvious targets.
Portugal aren’t quite as tall in a defensive sense – with Pepe and Fonte conceding a few inches to France’s aerial threats – meaning they’ll have to get the individual match-ups spot on.
Attacking wise, the 6ft 1ins Ronaldo more than makes up for that marginal disadvantage with his tremendous leap.
There are few in world football who can compete, especially when he’s running onto the ball, so Laurent Koscielny and Samuel Umtiti will have to be at their athletic best.
Ricardo Quaresma has proved Santos’ go-to guy, with the five of this six appearances as a substitute, while, such is their midfield depth, Danilo, Joao Mario, Adrien Silva, Joao Moutinho and Andre Gomes have been virtually interchangeable depending on their form.
Andre Pierre-Gignac has been France’s most-used replacement, coming off the bench four times, but he’s a like-for-like for Giroud, once he’s run out of steam.
Their real trump cards are Kingsley Coman and the up-to-now underused Anthony Martial. Both are young, quick, tricky and awkward to defend who could make a huge impact in the closing stages of the game, should Didier Deschamps turn to them.
It’s a bumper Sport360 podcast as James Piercy, Alex Rea, Matt Monaghan and Matthew Jones plus Mark Lomas in Paris preview the Euro 2016 final.
Is this Cristiano Ronaldo’s moment?
How Antoine Griezmann became the tournament’s posterboy.
How much should France be worrying about Patrice Evra?
And Paul Pogba: success, failure or has he just been okay?
Just as they did in 1984 and 1998, France have reached the final of a major tournament hosted in their own backyard. Both previous occasions ended with the home nation lifting the trophy, and they undoubtedly have the talent to repeat that feat on Sunday when they take on Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal in Paris.
France’s starting XI will reveal no shortage of stars. Antoine Griezmann has found the same eye for goal that powered Atlético Madrid to this season’s Champions League Final, while West Ham’s Dimitri Payet has helped him tear apart defences along the way.
Paul Pogba has yet to show the kind of form to justify talk of a Dhs490 million (€120m) transfer this summer, but his talent remains undeniable. The likes of Hugo Lloris and Laurent Koscielny have been hugely impressive in keeping out opponents, helped by a number of other excellent performances all over the pitch.
And then there’s Patrice Evra.
Regularly looking off the pace and past his best, Euro 2016 has not seen the 35-year-old shine like so many of his compatriots, yet he remains seemingly undroppable in the eyes of Didier Deschamps. At fault for a number of goals conceded by Les Bleus, few would blame the coach for benching Evra, particularly with the capable Lucas Digne patiently waiting for a chance to take to the field.
The younger left-back enjoyed a fine campaign with AS Roma and seems fully ready to make the position his own, yet Juvenuts veteran Evra has retained his place every time. Alongside Lloris and Bacary Sagna, he is the only other French player to have played every minute of the tournament, which on the surface seems odd given the subpar nature of his performances.
Why? Simply put, Evra brings so many intangible qualities to a vibrant young side that his absence could arguably see them collapse, robbed of the experienced presence they so clearly need in order to succeed. Since leading a strike at the 2010 World Cup he no longer wears the captain’s armband, yet he remains the team’s undisputed leader.
When they huddle together during pre-match warm ups, it is with Evra in the centre offering a motivational rallying cry. When they stood in front of their supporters in Marseille after a hard-fought semi-final win over Germany, it was the former Manchester United man who led them in a tribute to Iceland’s evocative Viking clap.
“I do not need the armband to do my work in the dressing room and on the field,” Evra has said. “It’s beautiful to be the captain, it is honourable, but it is not the most important.” That attitude continues today, and so many of his team-mates clearly look to him for guidance, for leadership and for an example of how they should conduct themselves on and off the pitch.
“He’s my Uncle Pat!” Pogba told RMC back in 2014. “I’m young and still need to learn. I cannot do everything right.” The two clearly share a great friendship, exemplified by their commandeering of microphones from Swiss outlet RSI this week, before launching into an impromptu interview of each other. After a couple of serious questions about the victory against Germany, they burst into laughter after Evra said that the win was “a little message for [Juve Coach Max] Allegri and the fitness coaches” to earn an extra week of rest before returning to training in Turin.
“I was planning on giving them two!” chuckled the Bianconeri boss, another man who feels unable to omit Evra from the team despite the presence of Brazilian international Alex Sandro. Indeed, when Juve were struggling last season and a Week 10 loss to Sassuolo saw them slump to 12th place in Serie A, it was Evra and Gigi Buffon who spoke out to arrest the slide.
Accusing his team-mates of “throwing away a title,” Evra publicly questioned their approach in an interview with Sky Italia. “There are some players who aren’t aware of the situation, who aren’t responsible” he said. “I don’t like to go on at them, but in this case it’s right. The club thinks it’s important to make some people understand the importance of the Juve shirt.”
They would rise to the challenge, winning 26 of their remaining 28 Serie A fixtures, clinching a second consecutive league and cup double along the way.
Just as he helps Pogba, “Uncle Pat” also reached out to Kingsley Coman’s family when the youngster first arrived at Juventus, with surprising results. “His father gave me the okay to be tough on him if he doesn’t listen,” Evra joked in an interview midway through the 2014-15 campaign. “I got dad’s approval, so that’s perfect!”
Fathers, coaches and pseudo-nephews all seem to recognise just how important it is to have a figure like Patrice Evra around, and it may just lead to him lifting the Henri Delaunay Trophy on Sunday evening.
“I have never won anything with the France team and it would feel like a failure for me, a blot on my career, if it stayed like that,” Evra told reporters this week. “But we have a chance now and I’m proud of all my team-mates. They’re doing their utmost to try to make me cry by winning the European Championship.”