Euro 2016: Final – Portugal v France

God, what a borefest!

After the afternoon thrill of the Lewis/Andy British double, it was such a disappointing, anti-climactic end to a super Sunday of sport.  You know the match was dull when the only excitement was provided by an invading swarm of moths who were the only entities on the pitch interested in attacking.  Every two years there is more and more hype surrounding major international tournaments, yet they always end up delivering less and less.  The fact that the tournament was won by an extra time goal (albeit a great goal) by a Swansea reject summed it up.  It was a tournament where endeavour trumped ambition and football was the loser.

The match should have been a battle of the brilliant no. 7s – Ronaldo vs Griezmann – a repeat of the Champions League final; instead it was lack of ambition vs fear of losing.  For that is what international football has become.  No one is interested in attacking and scoring goals as they are so scared of conceding that they would rather sit back and park the bus and hope to get lucky at the end.

Well, it certainly worked for Portugal.  No wins in any of their 3 group games, only 1 win in normal time in the whole competition against Wales, and a last gasp goal against Croatia in the last 16 without a single shot on goal beforehand.  Just stifle the opposition, get lucky on the break and bore the punters to death.  Apparently that’s the way to win major international tournaments.  But no doubt the experts will delight in telling us how tactically astute, supremely organised and defensively clever Portugal were.

Of course France were no better.  Their fabled midfield was suffocated with Pogba sitting too deep, Payet sitting too wide and Kante sitting on the bench.  The French lacked intent, with no passionate leader to galvanise the troops and drive them forward.  Ronaldo, though forced off the field far too early with a knee injury, to his credit, returned to the touchline, passionately urging his team on and perhaps for that reason alone, deserved to be on the winning side.

Still, it was not much of an advert for football.  Yet another major tournament final that failed to deliver.  If that’s international football, you can have it.  Give me the Premier League any day.  It may lack quality, but at least you are assured of exciting end to end football.  Rather naive attacking ambition triumphing over cynical defensive astuteness, win or lose.  For anyone who would counter that by saying defending is part of football, they ought to be reminded that scoring more goals than the opposition is also a valid footballing tactic.

Perhaps one day, some clever international manager will have a eureka moment and come to the same revolutionary conclusion.  International football may then be worth watching again.  Until then, it’s only a month till the new Premier League season starts again.  Happy days.


Euro 2016: SF – Portugal v Wales

Or Wales vs Wimbledon, Part II.

Losing two set leads was the fashion of the day on Centre Court on Mens quarter final day at Wimbledon.  After Marin Cilic had managed to squander two sets and numerous break point chances and match points on Roger Federer’s serve to eventually lose an epic encounter in five sets, Andy Murray decided to get in on the act.  Thanks in part to Andy’s sloppiness and Jo-Wilfred’s mercurial brilliance, Andy too frittered away a two set lead, plus a break in the fourth, to drag the match to a fifth set.  That meant he was still playing when the Portugal v Wales match started.  Thanks a bunch Andy.  So poor Wales were demoted to being ant men on my Samsung Mini again.

Thankfully, Andy is no Marin and Jo-Wilfred is no Roger.  “There is no way I am going to lose this match”, Andy shouted to his box, and he was true to his word.  He ran away with the fifth set, so the overlap between the tennis and the football lasted no more than the first half.  Fortunately, not much of interest had happened in the football, which was nothing new in a match Portugal were playing!

And here I have a confession to make.  At the start of the second half, I suddenly realised a bathroom break was urgently required, having sat through nearly 4 hours of Andy’s frustrating, dramatic, hair tearing adventures without moving.  Lulled by a false sense of security (well, nothing much happened in Portugal matches till the end, right?), I decided it was safe to quickly nip to the loo.  Bad, bad idea.  By the time I came out, Portugal were 2-0 up.  Wtf?!

And that was that.  Unlike Roger and Jo-Wilfred (at least for a while), there was no miraculous comeback for Wales.  Apparently it was Ronaldo who had made the difference, scoring one goal and making the other for Nani.  I didn’t need to see it to know that.  As I had written in the review of Portugal’s QF match against Poland, Ronaldo is always there doing it when it matters most.  Where would Portugal be without him?  Probably on their way home after the group stages.  Now Ronaldo is on the verge of achieving the one honour missing from his CV: winning a major tournament with Portugal.

As for Wales, what a fantastic achievement.  The semi final was a match too far, especially without the industry and creativity of the suspended Aaron Ramsey, but Wales can leave with their heads held high.  They gave it their all, which is all anyone can ask of them.

Still, it was a pity Wales couldn’t replicate the crazy comebacks at Wimbledon.  Wales 0 Wimbledon 1

Euro 2016: QF – Poland v Portugal

Portugal are such a bunch of jammy doughnuts.  They haven’t actually won a match in normal time at these Euros, and the only match they have actually won came right at the end of extra time in the last 16 against Croatia.  They didn’t win any of their group games and were within a whisker of going out of the tournament in their final group match against Hungary before Ronaldo – who else? – came to their rescue.

Now, Ronaldo has come in for some flak at this tournament.  He has looked out of sorts, lacklustre, frequently no more than a peripheral figure in games, but it’s funny how he comes through when it really matters.  Great players always do.

When Portugal were in trouble against Hungary, going behind three times, it was Ronaldo who set up Nani for the first equaliser and then scored himself twice to restore parity and ensure Portugal’s place in the last 16.  Against Croatia, Ronaldo was barely in the game, yet, with the match heading for a penalty shootout, there he was, lurking at the far post to hit the first shot on goal in the entire match, which led to Quaresma’s winning header.

In the quarter-final against Poland, it was Ronaldo once again, who saved the day after Poland had taken an early lead with Lewandowski.  He exchanged a super one-two with emerging talent Renato Sanches, backheeling the ball to the exciting teenager, who switched feet with aplomb and drove a deflected left footed shot past the keeper.  Ronaldo was also unlucky not to get a penalty after being unceremoniously shoved off the ball.  And when the match inevitably went to penalties, he was the first player to step up for his country – and score.

Many believe that Ronaldo has had a rather poor tournament, and by his extraordinary standards he has looked rather ordinary far too often.  But without him, Portugal would not have got out of the group stages, let alone made it to the semi-final.  The secret to being a successful player isn’t playing well all the time; it’s about doing the job when it matters most.  As the saying goes, form is temporary, class is permanent.  Ronaldo remains the classiest of them all.

Euro 2016: R16 – Croatia v Portugal

Why is it that when it comes to the knockout stages of major tournaments, skillful, swashbuckling, breathtakingly creative players brimming with talent become timorous mice?  What is so scary about trying to win by playing actual football that they would rather subject themselves to the arbitrary lottery of a penalty shootout than choose to take charge of their own destiny?  How to explain two teams with players possessed of the footballing gifts of Ronaldo, Luka Modric, Ricardo Quaresma, Ivan Rakitic and Ivan Perisic didn’t manage a single shot on target until the 117th minute, which turned out to be the Portuguese winner?

After their exciting showing in the group stages, culminating in an unexpected and thrilling victory against Spain, Croatia had gone from dark horses to one of the favourites for the tournament.  The onus was on Croatia to take the game by the scruff of the neck against opponents who had barely scraped through the group stages.  Yet, just at the moment when they should have stepped up a gear and shown intent and drive, they retreated into their shell and seemed content to meander through the match until its seemingly inevitable conclusion of a penalty shootout.

It was only in the final minutes of extra time that Croatia ventured forward with any intent; and they nearly got their reward.  Ivan Perisic finally found space and made a run down the left and squared a dangerous ball into the 6 yard box that skimmed agonisingly past an on-rushing Kalinic.  Moments later, Perisic hit the post from a header and it seemed that, belatedly, Croatia were in the ascendancy.  But then they made a fatal mistake.  Perisic’s header rebounded off the post to Brozovic in the 18 yard box, but instead of moving the ball forward he passed it back to Strinic on the left sideline, who was instantly pressured by two Portugal players, yet not a single teammate came to help him.  Inevitably, Strinic lost the ball to the two pressing Portuguese players, one of whom was a certain Cristiano Ronaldo, who proceeded to play a perfect pass into the middle to up and coming young player Renato Sanches.

With the Croatians committed up front, Sanches was free to drive the ball forward unhindered towards the penalty area and passed it to Nani on the left.  Nani’s shot/cross bypassed Croatian defender Domagoj Vida, and who happened to be behind him?  Yes, that certain Cristiano Ronaldo.  He had barely touched the ball in the penalty area all game, but like all great, talismanic players, he has a tendency to be there when it matters most.  It was he who hit the first shot on target in the match.  A scuffed shot saved by the Croatian keeper, but alas for him his save rebounded straight to Ricardo Quaresma (the other player who had helped win the ball from Croatia), who was handily standing right in front of the goal.  The players may not have known how to hit the target for nigh on 117 minutes, but even Quaresma couldn’t miss from 2 yards out.

Portugal had scored on the counter attack, but not because Croatia had finally dared to try and win the match and got caught out, but because at the crucial moment, they didn’t have each other’s backs.  When Croatia were attacking and the player with the ball was being pressured, no teammate helped him out, and the team paid the price.

For all their talent, when it really mattered, Croatia lacked the gumption to be winners.  And when it mattered, Ronaldo, who had been no more than a peripheral figure throughout the match, was back in his own half helping a teammate put pressure on the Croatian player.  When he had won the ball, it was he who passed it to Sanches in acres of space; it was he who then stormed up to the penalty area in support; it was he who raised his arm and demanded the ball; it was he who hit the first shot on target in the entire match, and it was from his shot that Quaresma scored the winning goal.  Ultimately, it was Ronaldo’s desire and drive that won the match.  It was a fleeting moment of quality in the most dismal and depressing of football matches.

Portugal may have been the winners but it was football and the unfortunate fans in the stadium, who had forked out a fortune, who were the losers.