After an eventful Euro 2016 tournament, two teams remain to face each other in the final, with the winner lifting the Henri Delaunay Cup on Sunday. While we look forward to seeing Portugal battle it out against France, we also thank all of the competing European teams for showcasing some of the finest football Europe has to offer.
A special thanks goes to host country France, who ran a seamless and successful tournament in the face of various adversarial conditions. From hooliganism to terrorism to the referees on the pitch, the French have shown the world that running a tournament well can be a tall order, but they were up for the task.
After holding the distinction of advancing to the semifinal round without winning a match in regulation time, Portugal secured their place in the finals by beating a determined but outgunned Wales squad 2-0. While Portugal was without defender Pepe, Wales was missing Aaron Ramsey as their playmaker and Ben Davies at the fullback spot due to yellow card accumulations. As the smallest country ever to reach the semifinals, the Welsh lacked depth and sorely missed both players. The lack of quality play in their offensive third of the pitch was a major factor in their loss and Wales really never mounted a challenge against a veteran Portuguese team. For Wales, after not advancing beyond the group stage in any tournament since 1958, this small nation can hold their head high as they have come a long way under the leadership of manager Chris Coleman.
Portugal will continue to rely upon their star Cristiano Ronaldo as well as a supporting cast of Nani, Joao Mario and rising star Renato Sanches, along with a tough defensive back line. In his post-game press conference, Ronaldo reflected on playing in his first international tournament (Euro 2004) when Portugal was stunned by Greece, and is keen on taking the trophy back to Portugal this time. He clearly hasn’t forgotten about it.
France played their semifinal match against Germany, who were without striker Mario Gomez, midfielder Sami Khedira (injury) and defender Mats Hummels (card accumulation). While losing three key starters might prove disastrous for most teams, Germany was able to continue their style of play and controlled the tempo in much of the first half until Bastian Schweinsteiger’s hand ball in the penalty area gave France a penalty and 1-0 half-time lead. This represented the first time Germany trailed in a match in their last 11 games in major tournaments.
The German game plan become more difficult in the 61st minute when their best defender, Jerome Boateng, sustained an injury and had to be substituted. Yet the much-maligned French defense continued to stymie the German squad, allowing them to posses the ball but limiting their goal-scoring opportunities. As the game progressed, it became clear that a combination of German injuries and the sheer speed of Antoine Griezmann and the rest of the French squad proved to be too much for Die Mannschaft, who possessed the ball 65% of the game. This match represented the first time that France has beaten Germany in a tournament game since 1958.
Prediction– The quarterfinal win by France was somewhat maligned by the soccer community. After all, it was Iceland, not some top FIFA-ranked team. In fact, German midfielder Mesut Ozil sent a tweet to his Arsenal teammate and French defender Laurent Koscielny that “we are not Iceland” before the game. While much of this was just harmless banter, he did have a point. Iceland was able to score twice against France, while Germany failed to put the ball in the back of the net once.
Both Portugal and France have one thing in common: They have both improved as the tournament has progressed. While Portugal has more veteran players, look for France to create more opportunities and will be hoisting the Henri Delaunay Cup on Sunday after a 3-1 victory.