As we approach the final furlong of Euro 2016, it is with some surprise that Portugal could end up winning the competition.
How did that happen? They weren’t among the favourites. They weren’t even among the dark horses. But through it all, they made it. And, truthfully, the fact they are in the final at all pretty much sums up the tournament.
Portugal have not been easy to watch. They laboured to a draw against Iceland, blew their chance against a shockingly-poor Austrian side, and then fell behind three times against Hungary. They failed to win a game in arguably the easiest group and were ranked third in the third place table. In fact, had Hungary been able to hang on or even score another, then Portugal would have been eliminated. Three draws saw them through to the last 16 – a sad indictment of the new format.
Despite some early promise and the occasional moment of drama, this new format has fallen a bit flat. Northern Ireland are perhaps the prime example. They were lauded for their brave 1-0 defeat to Germany, but holding on for a narrow defeat is not what football is about. At all.
They were poor in that game and also struggled against Poland. An impressive victory over Ukraine brought them into the last 16 but should one performance be enough to see a team enter the next round?
That next round tie was a narrative-watering game against British brothers Wales – a match that produced little quality, a paltry eight shots, and was settled by an own goal. It was the worst game of the championships – at that point.
Later that evening we were treated to draw specialists Portugal, predictably, holding Croatia to a 0-0 bore. Never mind being the worst game of the tournament, this laid claim to being the most dour competitive international in recent memory. Ricardo Quaresma nodded one in from two yards in the 119th minute – it’s just a pity he couldn’t have done it thirty minutes earlier.
And so, Cristiano Ronaldo and co. advanced to the quarter finals while the other third place nations bowed out in predictable, defensive fashion. Yes, the Republic of Ireland gave a good account of themselves for 45 minutes, fair enough.
In the quarter finals, Portugal met a solid Polish side that had overcome Switzerland on penalties. The writing was on the wall before the game even began. Like the moon rising at night, Portugal and Poland ended up cancelling each other out and the game went to a shoot-out. Portugal won, and they were in the semi-final without winning a match in normal time.
Tactically, you have to hand it to manager Fernando Santos. Despite his side not having an in-form striker, he has brought out the best in both Ronaldo and Nani who have done well in makeshift forward roles. It’s a rather loose definition of ‘forward’ as both are happy to roam around the final third helping out the midfield, but it has worked. Quaresma’s inevitable introduction also gives the side more attacking threat and his role as super sub has been effective each time.
Defensively, Ricardo Carvalho has been dropped for super Saint José Fonte in a move that took too long in coming. Fonte and Pepe are a formidable defensive partnership on their day and France will have to work hard to break them down.
Portugal defeated Wales too easily on Wednesday night. The absence of Aaron Ramsey was desperately felt as Joe Allen and Andy King struggled to make any impact. It was the first time, too, that Portugal produced an impressive performance as they forced the Welsh to play the ball out wide, where Chris Gunter and Neil Taylor were left isolated. Santos is a manager with a great deal of experience and success. His Greek sides overachieved at the Euro 2012 and World Cup 2014 tournaments and what he has done with Portugal should be no surprise.
However, when all is said and done, Portugal have trudged their way to the final. Despite being gifted the easier side of the draw, they still did their best to shoot themselves in the foot and they couldn’t even do that.
The new format is flawed. It rewards defensive football and means the majority of group matches have little emotional or technical value, promoting the idea that a team can skip into the next round with one, solitary good performance.
Santos is a canny operator and even if he has to take to the field himself, he’ll force his hapless lads to play well. Is there a better way to end the tournament than with a third place team lifting the trophy? Don’t bet against it.
Jason Coulter, Pundit Arena