One of my earliest football memories is from the UEFA cup final between Inter Milan and Lazio. A young Ronaldo scoring the third and final goal of the game, three step-overs and he was past the goalie leaving him on his back side as he proudly strutted goal ward before slotting into an empty net. I was bemused, I was awestruck, I was in love. A few months later he was at it again in France, on the biggest stage of all – the FIFA world cup- mesmerizing defenses scoring audacious goals. The Brazilian national team was amazing, playing a brand of attacking football like no other, they were a joy to watch, they were amazing, they were untouchable…and then it happened, on the day of the final, at the Stade de France in Saint Denis…An innocuous corner and BOOM Zidane had scored, I was not worried because Brazil and Ronaldo always win or didn’t they? But then it happened again, him again, like a replay of the first. Even then I still had hope. But when a blonde man I would later come to know as Emmanuel Petit struck the third deep in extra time, I knew it was over and I cried. My Brazil had been defeated, my Ronaldo had been defeated, and I was heartbroken.
Fast forward 18 years and the venue is the same, another Ronaldo, another French team in the final of a major tournament in their own backyard. But while Brazil’s swashbuckling all conquering style caught the eye in ’98, Portugal has stuttered and stumbled their way through the group stages and the knock out stages, only showing something close to their full potential in the semi final against Wales. France started on shaky ground but in the latter stages has put in some inspired performances to reach this stage. As Saint-Denis welcomes another Ronaldo to another we wonder.
He has nothing to prove to be honest, he is one of the greatest players to ever tread a football pitch without a doubt, but he would really like a national honour to add to his brimming trophy cabinet. He is the joint highest goal scorer in the history of the Euros finals with 9 goals to his name, and he could yet become the outright top marksman with a goal in the final on Sunday. He hasn’t been at his stunning best at this tournament however, notching up ONLY 3 goals and 3 assists a MERE 75% of Portugal’s goals at this tournament. Portugal’s hopes lie on the shoulders of their legendary captain who will be looking to lead the line against France in what might be his last Uefa Euro tournament and he will be hoping to go out with a bang.
Ronaldo’s record of Uefa Euro goals is already under threat by the little Frenchman who is the leading marksman at this year’s tournament with 6 goals. Barring any heroics in the final he will finish as the person with the most finals goals in one tournament since Michel Platini’s 9 goals led France to victory in 1984 also on home soil. And at 25, if he doesn’t equal Ronaldo and Platini at this tournament, he will probably do so at the next. He has been the best player in the knockout stages scoring 5 goals and assisting 2 and France will once again look to their golden boy for another inspired performance to guide them to yet another major tournament win on home soil.
Fernando Santos has been as consistent with his tactics and player selection as Bafetimbi Gomis’ goal scoring form. Utilizing every outfield player available to him in the course of the tournament, predicting his starting line-up is impossible. All we know is Rui Patricio will be in goal and Ronaldo will start. Predicting anything else would be a gamble. To win, Portugal would have to cope with France’s long balls searching out Olivier Giroud and the combination play of their front two. Playing Riccardo Carvalho may be suicidal, despite his experience he would easily be beaten for pace. They have William Carvalho back however, and Pepe’s injury will be touch and go right until kick off. Portugal’s main strength is the ability of their front players to move around, making it difficult for opposing defenders to mark specific players. Ronaldo, Nani and possibly Quaresma, Joao Mario or Renato Sanchez would be very important in the way they attack.
The Giroud-Griezmann combination has worked wonders for France in the knockout stages, Payet and Pogba in support have also been solid and the introduction of Sissoko into the team has injected pace going forward. Evra and Sagna bombing down the wings in conjunction with these other factors makes France a real attacking force but they have also proven that they could at times be defensively frail and lacking in concentration and this could cost them against Portugal and they would do well to accord Portugal the same respect they gave Germany if they are to continue their incredible home record.
POGBA VS RENATO SANCHES
As a side note, two of modern football’s best young midfelders will lock horns for the first but probably not the last time. While Renato Sanchez has been Portugal’s and indeed Euro 2016’s breakthrough player, Pogba was one of France’s main hopes for coming into the tournament and while he has traded in his usual flair for a more dependable midfield marshalling role, he has still been a huge part of France’s success in the tournament. Two very similar players who have outstanding technical ability, strength and a penchant for the extraordinary, this could be the beginning of a long drawn out battle for Europe’s midfield and we will all be keen to see who will have the upper hand.
As Stade de France brings to a close a remarkable tournament that has seen the highs and the lows of football, upsets, passion, incredible goals, amazing fans, debutants going above and beyond. We have truly been entertained by a tournament that has lived up to its billing. France have shown their quality and Portugal have snuck in the back door, but it remains to be seen, will Ronaldo get one over his Brazilian namesake and have his day in Saint Denis or will this young French team continue a proud tradition started over 32 years ago. Allez au France, vêm na seleção. May the best team win.
Article By: Ayoola Kelechi, @ayoola_kelechi