A gritty tournament won by the grittiest team of them all. There couldn’t have been a more fitting Euro 2016 winner than Portugal.
Having fought tooth and nail to get to the final, Fernando Santos’ side were once again at their belligerent best – or worst – to ruin the mood at the Stade de France thanks to Eder’s goal in the second period of extra time.
Didier Deschamps had been rewarded for throwing caution to the wind through the knockout rounds, Antoine Griezmann’s shift to central positions helping him top the tournament’s scoring charts.
But Santos has become the ultimate pragmatist in victory here.
Unbeaten now in 14 competitive outings, it is perhaps little surprise that defence appears to be the focus for the Selecao when they are topped by a man who can claim to be one of the game’s all-time greats.
Cristiano Ronaldo was the man during qualifying, scoring five of Portugal’s 11 goals. Each of their seven victories came by a one-goal margin.
At the tournament, things got even tighter. Save for a remarkable end-to-end slugfest against Hungary that finished 3-3, Portugal strangled all life out of any game they played, almost to their own detriment in frustrating group-stage draws with Iceland and Austria.
Croatia were seen off in extra time, after a torturous 117 minutes of strictly no-risk action. Before Poland were dispatched on penalties.
The semi-final success over Wales was the finest performance by a mile as Santos’ tactics stifled another side liable to sit on the counter-attack and let their Real Madrid hero do the business.
Ronaldo’s header in that Lyon victory was his ninth goal in tournament history – taking him level with Michel Platini at the top of the European Championship scoring chart.
His withdrawal 25 minutes into the final only crystallised the game plan. Sit deep, spring into defensive action 30 yards from goal, break in numbers when opponents are over-committed.
Like every good win this one came with good fortune. Andre-Pierre Gignac hit the post in the 92nd minute, after Griezmann had inexplicably headed over.
Eder’s strike was a wondrous one from 25 yards, but it was all set up by midfield tenacity to rob France of the ball and then attack with purpose.
Tiki-taka was at its peak when this tournament was won four years ago by Spain. Portugal’s smash-and-grab win, added to Leicester City’s similar Premier League triumph, suggests a shift in football’s winning tactic.
And Euro 2016 as a whole has told the same story: Almost always a dominant attack against a stubborn defence.
From the opening night, when France’s swarming frontline had to be bailed out by Dimitri Payet against a Romania side that qualified to the tournament off the back of eight clean sheets, defences have been on top.
The expanded format has allowed for some tremendous stories. Italy’s resurgence and the stunning debuts of Iceland and Wales were all founded on stubborn defensive solidity.
With just 16 teams involved, Euros of old had nowhere to hide. Lose your opener and you were facing an uphill battle, lose two and you were toast.
This time, teams were able to cruise through the tournament, perhaps none more so than Portugal themselves, with risk-taking now not necessary.
The goals-per-game ratio has fallen from 2.45 to 2.12 in the space of four years, despite the highest-scoring game falling short on 2016’s (Germany 4-2 Greece to France 5-2 Iceland) and Griezmann’s golden boot tally of six double that of Fernando Torres in Poland and Ukraine.
How travelling across Europe will affect things in four years’ time remains to be seen. This writer would wager that added fatigue will make for even more caution, with the examples of Santos and Claudio Ranieri a blueprint for making sure you take a few chances rather than creating as many as possible.
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