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Author: Iain Macintosh

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The final of the European Championships was, it is fair to say, no classic. But it could have been even worse. It should have been even worse. France, with their galaxy of stars, their home advantage, their overwhelming support and their misplaced sense of manifest destiny, should have had that game wrapped up in the first twenty minutes. That they didn’t was partly their own fault and partly the result of the enforced substitution of Cristiano Ronaldo.
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Portugal boss Fernando Santos was honest and open about his team’s limitations after the extraordinary 3-3 draw with Hungary that secured their third place finish. He admitted to the media that he needed to find a way to shore up his defence. And, by thunder, he certainly did that. The introduction of Jose Fonte was a masterstroke; the reassuring presence of the Southampton man made a significant difference to a jittery backline.

Perhaps it didn’t always come across on the television, but inside the stadium, it was hard not to notice him constantly and calmly gesturing at the other members of the back line, keeping order in the ranks. The tightening of the lines helped too, a midfield that had been too easily overrun dropped deeper to provide security. But the use of Nani and Ronaldo as forwards with freedom prevented opposition defenders from ever settling.

But Santos’ Plan A didn’t work in Paris. Patrice Evra and Bakary Sagna were able to get forward to support the midfield. Renato Sanches, playing on the right of the midfield, was easily overrun. Moussa Sissoko was able to punch holes in the lines of red shirts with his driving runs. And Portugal looked so edgy. They nearly jeopardised their night by repeatedly giving the ball away. Santos, in those first moments, had a face like thunder.  Sissoko smashed a snapshot over the bar. Antoine Griezmann blatted one into the side-netting. Olivier Giroud forced Pepe into giving the ball away to Dimitri Payet, whose clever, lofted ball gave Griezmann a clear header, well tipped over by Rui Patricio. From the resultant corner, Giroud should have done much, much better with his free header. That’s exactly what he’s there for.

And how much more could France have created if Paul Pogba had been used differently? For reasons that don’t seem entirely clear, manager Didier Deschamps chose to use his £100m man at the base of his midfield. While his mobility makes him a useful option for keeping an eye on Ronaldo, Nani and Adrien Silva, it’s hardly the best use of his talent. Pogba’s most frequent action in those opening exchanges was to pick up the ball deep, look ahead at that Portuguese triumvirate on the half way line and opt for a simple sideways pass. You do not want Pogba to spend his night making simple sideways passes.
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But then came the moment that changed the game. The crunching tackle by Payet that saw Ronaldo eventually removed. And then Santos needed a new plan. Ricardo Quaresma was sent to the right flank, Sanches shifted back into the middle and Nani was left to forage on his own up front. The full backs, so vulnerable before, were secured. Red shirts filled every space on the pitch. French probes were limited to Sissoko’s driving runs, which were valiant enough, but you do wonder what Pogba could have done in that position.

As a spectacle, the game declined rapidly. This is not a criticism of Portugal. Santos rightly invoked that most applicable tenet of Sun Tzu’s doctrine: “The good fighters of old first put themselves beyond defeat, then waited for an opportunity to defeat the enemy.” And that opportunity was spectacularly taken by Eder.

But it should never have come to that. France should have had the game won before half time. With Pogba in a more offensive role, perhaps they might have done.
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Iain Macintosh
Is a football writer for ESPNFC and the editor of  The Set Pieces

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