After one month of competition between some of the best footballing nations in the world, only two nations remain hopeful to hoist the Henri Delaunay Trophy on Sunday, as Euro 2016 comes to a close. The candidates: France, host-nation and two-time winner, and Portugal, a perennial contender led by superstar Cristiano Ronaldo. While the Portuguese are widely considered to be underdogs for the championship game, their recent, inspired performance against Wales in the semifinals has put them in a competitive position, mentally and physically, to match up well with the highly-talented and crowd-favorite French.
Despite previously failing to win a match in regulation throughout the tournament, Portugal found itself in an unusual situation on Wednesday against Wales. Two exceedingly quick second-half goals, one a Ronaldo header in the 50th minute and the other the result of a rather fortuitous touch from winger Nani, put the Portuguese in a commanding lead, one that they would not relinquish. The 2-0 victory over the Gareth Bale-led Welsh has ignited a spark in the Portuguese not yet seen in this tournament. The angst and conservatism displayed in previous matches against Croatia and Hungary appear to be a thing of the past, as this squad looks to prove its worthiness of a European Championship final.
While Portugal has only begun to hit its stride in recent days, France has had dominating performances against Ireland and Iceland, as well as a 2-0 win against Germany en route to Sunday’s championship match. Led by forward Antoine Griezmann, leading goal-scorer in this year’s tournament (6), Les Bleus have rolled impressively into the final, despite being in the considerably tougher side of the bracket.
However, it is unlikely that the success of this formidable French side has dismayed the Portuguese; in fact, they relish in France’s position as favorite.
“I think Portugal have to be underdogs in order to have a chance,” believes Roberto Martinez, former manager of Everton and commentator for ESPN’s coverage of Euro 2016. Having barely advanced from the group stage in third place and having struggled to take advantage of chances during regulation throughout the tournament, Portugal has been tested immensely. And yet, the Portuguese have managed to advance and thrive under this pressure.
As much as Portugal accepts its role as underdog, France embraces its position as favorite. Ultimately the contest may come down to which side can impose its will on the other more, as retired German footballer Michael Ballack contends:
“Now they [France] have huge confidence and they should attack like they did against Iceland for over 90 minutes and some of the parts against Germany because individually they are far ahead of Portugal. The question will be, ‘Is Portugal able to play a game like against Croatia?’ Ugly, dirty, sit back, disciplined, and have Ronaldo up front and have just one or two moments.”
In a tournament that has been littered by little “moments”, it is likely that we will witness more than a few when these two sides collide.
Kickoff is at 3PM EST on Sunday at the Stade de France in Saint-Denis with the UEFA European Championship title on the line.