This summer of scintillating international competition has finally come to an end, sadly. Sunday evening, France and Portugal faced off in Saint Denis to battle it out for the title of European Champion. Cristiano Ronaldo and the Portuguese team had never won an international title in their history and haven’t made it to the final since their devastating loss to Greece on their own turf back in 2004. France were one of the most dominant sides in the tournament, and the pressure on them to win on home turf was astronomical to say the least. With immeasurable pressure on both nations, who could come ahead?
From the start, you could sense that Portugal were content to absorb wave after wave of French attack and wait for a quick counter to get them on the board. Whatever their game plan was, it must’ve been thrown out the window in the eighth minute. As Ronaldo received the ball on the right wing, Dimitri Payet clattered into him with a seemingly fair challenge. The Real Madrid superstar immediately went to ground holding his left knee, and looked to be in serious pain.
Ronaldo, temporarily, tried to play through the pain. A minute later, France came within inches of opening the scoring. A slip by Pepe in defense gave the ball away to Payet. The West Ham midfielder played in an excellent lofted through ball onto the head of the tournament’s leading goal scorer Antoine Griezmann. Griezmann did extremely well to generate enough power to send the ball towards the back of the net, but Rui Patricio delivered one of the saves of the tournament as he sprawled backwards to tip it over the bar.
In the 25th minute, Portuguese fans’ worst nightmare became a reality. Unfortunately, Cristiano Ronaldo couldn’t carry on and had to be carried off the field on a stretcher. The emotion on his face showed the world just how much this match meant to him, and it was heartbreaking to see one of the best players in the world leave one of the biggest games of his career. How would his teammates respond?
After Ronaldo’s departure, Portugal resumed their strategy of absorbing the French attack. Other than a low drive from Moussa Sissoko, France struggled to break down their opponents and were held relatively quiet compared to the attacking workshops they’ve put on during the tournament. As the whistle blew to close out the first 45 minutes, the sides were still deadlocked at 0-0 (nothing new for Portugal).
France came out with more vigor to start out the second half, but they just couldn’t seem to find a way to really test Rui Patricio between the pipes. On the other end, Hugo Lloris may have been getting pretty bored. Portugal’s attack, as expected, struggled to create the same type of fast-paced counter attacks, and you had to wonder how much longer their defense could hold out France.
Five minutes after the hour mark, Griezmann again found himself with a chance to play the hero and give France the lead. Second half substitute Kingsley Coman played in an inch-perfect cross to the Atlético Madrid striker, and it looked like Griezmann had to score. Sadly for France, their talismanic striker couldn’t get the right contact and his effort sailed just inches over the bar.
It wasn’t until the 80th minute that Lloris was actually tested by the Portuguese attack. First, the Tottenham keeper had to deal with an awkward cross from Nani that ended up being more of a lofted shot. Lloris parried it away, but the rebound bounced nicely for Ronaldo’s replacement Ricardo Quaresma. Quaresma tried to pull out the extraordinary, but his acrobatic bicycle kick went straight into the hands of Lloris.
In the final ten minutes, France really started to push for a winner. In the 84th minute, Sissoko hit a powerful drive from outside the box that forced Rui Patricio into a strong diving save. The best chance of the match came in the 92nd minute. André-Pierre Gignac got the ball on the edge of the six-yard box and pulled off a lovely bit of skill to put Pepe on the floor. His shot snuck by Rui Patricio only to smack off the post and deflect too far wide for France to put in the rebound.
GIgnac’s close call was the final bit of action for regulation, and for the first time in the tournament’s history, the European finals were scoreless after 90 minutes. You could argue that France had the tactical advantage going into the 30 minutes of added time because they still had one of their three substitutes left. Portugal, on the other hand, had already used up theirs.
The first bit of real action of extra time came in the 104th minute. Eder, who was Portugal’s final change of the match, got on the end of Quaresma’s corner kick, but Lloris was there to deny the striker’s header on the line. We would continue this scoreless trend into the final 15 minutes of added time.
In the 108th minute, Portugal came within inches of taking the lead. French-born Raphaël Guerreiro hit a well struck free kick past the wall. It looked like it took Lloris by surprised on the initial viewing. Luckily for the Tottenham keeper, the free kick cannoned off the underside of the crossbar and out of danger.
It wouldn’t take long after that for Portugal to take the lead. Within two minutes, Éder muscled past Laurent Koscielny outside the penalty area to open up a yard of space. The 28-year-old turned and hit a low drive into the bottom corner past Lloris to become the unlikeliest of tournament heroes and give Portugal the lead. Nobody celebrated more than Cristiano Ronaldo who had emerged from the locker room to join his teammates on the bench.
Éder’s strike proved to be the winner as Portugal claimed their first ever European crown. While this accomplishment is impressive in itself, it becomes even more unbelievable when you take into consideration that their best player wasn’t on the pitch for more than 90 minutes. Hats off to France for a well played tournament, but you have to applaud the way Portugal grinded out result after result. Congratulations to the Champions of Europe: Portugal!