All the signs pointed to a French party. They started the Euro 2016 Final as clear favourites against a Portugal team which had clawed their way to the Stade de France showdown. France, meanwhile, were riding high following victory over Germany.
They had the chance to equal Michel Platini’s team of 1984 which won the European Championships on home soil. And the class of 1998. Captain then, Didier Deschamps could be a national hero once more.
But this was a tournament for ending hoodoos. Italy ended their barren spell against Spain. Germany then finally beat the Azzurri in a major tournament. Portugal came into the Final without a win in their last 10 against France. That included the Semi-finals of Euro ‘84 and 2000, plus the World Cup six years later. And the French did themselves no favours on a moth-infested Sunday in Paris.
Even with Portugal losing talisman Cristiano Ronaldo and France holding the ascendency, the game remained scoreless. Deschamps said afterwards the French “lost together”, although some of his decisions were curious, to say the least.
He has battled with midfield balance throughout the tournament. It started when it became clear Antoine Griezmann would be better suited to playing centrally. A man in form, Deschamps went with the Atletico Madrid player. For the Quarter-final with Iceland he was fielded in a 4-2-3-1 behind Olivier Giroud. But in the reshuffle, Deschamps had Paul Pogba become the holding midfielder.
On Sunday the Juventus man did not have a licence to get forward. It was Moussa Sissoko and Blaise Matuidi doing that. While offering energy, they lack the craft of Pogba. France needed that to unlock a resolute Portuguese defence.
They did create chances – Griezmann had a header in each half and Andre-Pierre Gignac hit the post in second half injury time, but the longer it went on the more France grew anxious. And Portugal grew in confidence. Deschamps substitutions, aside from throwing on Anthony Martial after the Portuguese goal, did little to change the course of the match.
There appeared no French fluidity through the centre, or cohesiveness in their attacking play. Would releasing Pogba have changed anything? It would have helped. Don’t forget, he was heavily involved in the second goal against Germany, minutes after N’Golo Kante came on to protect the base of midfield.
Portugal got the only goal in extra-time, leaving France to wonder how they let another home tournament triumph slip through their grasp. When tasked with breaking down a firm defence neither the players or coach had an answer.