France hold firm to keep Belgium at bay

In the dying moments of Belgium’s highly-anticipated semi-final clash with France, French midfield enforcer Paul Pogba stood in the corner. The French were seeking to rule out a Belgian comeback, and Pogba was straddling the ball with a number of Belgians attempting to shove him out of the way so they could force the ball upfield. They never got the chance. Eventually, Pogba committed a foul. A few seconds later, the final whistle blew. France were in the World Cup final. In the end, it was a rather anticlimactic finish, with Belgium never really testing France after going behind. A well-taken corner and a simple header was the foundation on which a simple win was built.

France went on the front foot from the first blast of Andrés Cunha’s whistle, with Kylian Mbappé attempting an enterprising run down the right wing just seconds after kick-off. It was Belgium, however, who seized the early initiative. The Belgians took control of possession and territory, with France happy to sit back and absorb the pressure. Eventually, chances began to arrive. Eden Hazard had a couple of dangerous shots, one of which was just deflected over the bar by Raphaël Varane’s header. A Belgian corner fell for Toby Alderweireld, who tested Hugo Lloris by wheeling around onto his left foot and sending a one-time shot fizzing towards goal, but the French keeper’s diving save prevented him from finding the back of the net. Belgium were starting to ramp up the pressure and France needed to respond.

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Samuel Umtiti celebrates after scoring France’s first goal from a well-delivered corner. Belgium weren’t able to recover the deficit as France held on for a 1-0 win.

They did. The French started to find their touch on the break as the match went on, and Olivier Giroud had a series of particularly dangerous chances. Giroud’s frustration, borne from not scoring in the tournament despite his key role as France’s central striker, only increased as chances were missed and the scores stayed level. As the half drew to a close, French right-back Benjamin Pavard combined with Mbappé and forced Thibaut Courtois into a tough save, but it was France’s hulking frontman who had the lion’s share of the chances. It was still scoreless at half-time, but it seemed inevitable that someone would find the back of the net in the second half. It was the French who broke through.

A few minutes after half time, France won a corner, which allowed Antoine Griezmann to whip the ball into the box. He drove his corner close to goal, where two teammates were waiting. Pogba didn’t get a touch on it. Samuel Umtiti did. The French centre-back managed to beat Marouane Fellaini in the air, and his glancing, close-range header was impossible for Courtois to stop. Shortly after Umtiti’s header, the French threatened again, finding space thanks to Mbappé and manufacturing a series of opportunities. Mbappé’s ball for Blaise Matuidi allowed Matuidi to shoot from the edge of the box, and when Belgium failed to adequately clear the blocked shot France threatened again. Mbappé’s backheel for Giroud gave the big striker some space, but his luck was out and his shot was desperately blocked.

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Hugo Lloris (left) flies to punch the ball away from Marouane Fellaini. Fellaini was Belgium’s main target for their crosses, but France did well to ensure that he, and striker Romelu Lukaku, weren’t able to impact the match.

A couple of crosses into the box provided Belgium’s best chances for redemption. Kevin de Bruyne managed to hit his volley goalward from just inside the box, but his side-footed shot was poorly hit and Lloris gathered it comfortably. Lloris wasn’t quite so comfortable a few minutes later as he dived in an attempt to stop Fellaini’s header, but the header missed and the deficit remained. Crosses had soon become Belgium’s primary mode of attack, with Dries Mertens, de Bruyne, Jan Vertonghen and Alderweireld all whipping the ball into the box but not finding enough targets in the middle to really trouble the French defence. Most of the time, Paul Pogba, Umtiti or Varane managed to head them away.

When a couple of de Bruyne’s crosses caused a bit of chaos in the French box, it looked like the game was building to an exciting climax. It wasn’t. Belgium’s chances began to dry up, their frustrations mounted and France killed the game easily despite six minutes of additional time being allocated. They barely even had to defend, as space began to open up for them on the break and they began to target the Belgian defence with their dangerous counter-attacks. In the last few minutes, Courtois was forced into a couple of diving saves to keep France from doubling their lead. At the other end of the pitch, Lloris was a virtual spectator as Belgium’s golden generation couldn’t put it together. They came from 2-0 down against Japan, and they upset Brazil, but they couldn’t get past the final hurdle as France battle on. They weren’t spectacular, but 1-0 was enough. Didier Deschamps’ men know how to win, and now they’re in the final.

Saint Petersburg – Krestovsky Stadium
France 1 (Umtiti 51)
Belgium 0
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Pogba, Kanté; Mbappé, Griezmann, Matuidi (Tolisso 86); Giroud (N’Zonzi 85).
Belgium (3-5-2): Courtois – Alderweireld, Kompany, Vertonghen; Chadli (Batshuayi 90+1), Dembélé (Mertens 60), Witsel, Fellaini (Carrasco 80), de Bruyne; Lukaku, E Hazard.

Top 5
1. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba played a big role in the latter stages, when Belgium were attempting their aerial bombardment of the French goal. He made sure he was in the box for every cross, and he was always able to head the ball clear and keep his side’s lead safe. Combined with his usual brilliance in midfield, it made for a good performance.
2. Raphaël Varane (France)
His defensive partner may have scored the goal, but Varane was the man underpinning France’s solidity. He and Umtiti complemented each other well, and Varane did some good defensive work at key moments in the game to keep Belgium at bay. He defended Romelu Lukaku brilliantly, and made it look easy at the same time.
3. Thibaut Courtois (Belgium)
Umtiti seemed to find one of the few sure-fire ways of beating Courtois: slam it in from close range. Short of that, beating the Belgian keeper seems nearly impossible. France didn’t test him too much, but he was always in position to make the saves he needed to and he threw in some very high-quality stops to keep the deficit at one goal.
4. Hugo Lloris (France)
Like Courtois, Lloris didn’t have too much work to do despite Belgium’s control of the ball, but the French captain did it well and made sure that, on the rare occasion his defence was breached, he was around to make the save. His form, like that of his side, has been steadily improving and his strong performance will give him confidence for the final.
5. Toby Alderweireld (Belgium)
Alderweireld was one of Belgium’s main ball carriers thanks to France’s solid defensive structure, and the centre-back managed to do more than most of his teammates. He provided their best chance of the game with a very tough but well-hit first-time shot and he was reliable when called upon to defend.

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Eder strike sinks France as Portugal claim title

In the six games leading up to the final of Euro 2016 the Portuguese had barely used Eder. The big striker had spent thirteen minutes on the pitch at the tournament, with two substitute appearances the sum total of his contribution to Portugal’s run to the final. In the four matches before the final he had been an unused substitute, watching on as his teammates did the work. But in the final he got his chance, and he cemented a very special place in history by scoring the goal which delivered Portugal their first ever victory at a major tournament.

The Lille frontman came on with around ten minutes remaining in normal time, with the score tied at 0-0. He made an impact almost immediately, using his height and strength to great advantage as he won plenty of free kicks in dangerous positions. He was the player Portugal needed in the absence of Cristiano Ronaldo, the side’s captain, talisman and best player. Ronaldo was the hard luck story of the final, injured early on following a tackle by Dimitri Payet and unable to continue. He left on a stretcher after a valiant attempt to play out the match, crying in despair as he was carried down the race. The injury had left Portugal without a strong aerial option, a void which Eder could easily fill.

The French were strong favourites to lift the trophy in front of their home fans, and in the early stages they began to assert their authority. Antoine Griezmann, already a shoo-in for the golden boot with six goals, looked dangerous early and continually found himself in good positions. He could have had a seventh when he was in a perfect position to receive Payet’s nonchalant ball over the top, but Portugal survived. The header was perfectly placed, and had Rui Patricio failed to tip it over the bar it would have found its way into the top corner.

As the game wore on, the French became less threatening. They were still very confident, but they were content to pass the ball around the back and never really looked like penetrating the organised Portuguese front. France were not able to get their stars involved in the game, and while Moussa Sissoko looked very dangerous his contemporaries did not. They continued to pass the ball around the back, and in doing so they allowed Portugal to gain a solid foothold in the match.

The first half ended without much goalmouth activity, and the second half did not bring about a noticeable change in energy. Neither side was really injecting much pace into the game, and neither side was willing to take a chance. The French were on top of possession, but they were not using it effectively and were unable to pressure the Portuguese defence. Griezmann should have scored after he received a perfect cross from Kingsley Coman, but the header was just over the bar. The game remained scoreless.

As the second half drew to a close the game was still level, and neither side really looked like clinching it. Portugal had a great opportunity after Nani’s cross was palmed away by Hugo Lloris in the direction of Ricardo Quaresma, but the bicycle kick, while impressive, was ineffective. France had some great chances as the half drew to a close, and Andre-Pierre Gignac should have scored in injury time after he beat Pepe in the box to find the ball in an excellent position. His shot ran through Patricio’s legs as it made its way towards the goal, but it rebounded off the post and bounced past Griezmann, who was unable to retrieve it in time. The Portuguese cleared, and extra time was inevitable.

Eder started to find his feet in the first period of extra time, getting into good positions and using his physical superiority over the French defence to win plenty of the ball and plenty of fouls. He had a great chance as the half came to a close, with a close range header from Quaresma’s corner forcing Lloris to make an excellent save. The Portuguese had finished the first half of extra time on top, and they were able to turn that into something tangible just after the break. Raphael Guerreiro came close early on when he hit the underside of the bar with his free kick, and the goal followed moments later.

Eder took three fairly clumsy touches to control the ball when he received it outside the box. He had played well after replacing 18-year-old wunderkind Renato Sanches, but nothing he had done in half an hour on the pitch suggested what was about to happen next. He shot from range, placing the ball into the bottom corner with plenty of power. It was too much for Lloris, who was unable to reach it as it buried itself in the back of the net.

Eder’s goal left France in a state of panic, and they tried in vain to play at a faster pace. They were too young and inexperienced, and they did not have the presence of mind that they needed to overcome the deficit. The Portuguese were content to waste time whenever they were given the chance, and they looked in complete control as they held the hosts at bay. For the first time this tournament France did not have an answer, and Portugal were the ones left celebrating after clinging on to hoist the trophy at the Stade de France.

Saint-Denis – Stade de France
Portugal 1 (Eder 109)
France 0 (a.e.t)
Referee: Mark Clattenburg (Eng)

Portugal (4-1-3-2): Rui Patricio – Cedric, Pepe, Fonte, Raphael Guerreiro; William Carvalho; Renato Sanches (Eder 79), Adrien Silva (Joao Moutinho 66), Joao Mario; Nani, Ronaldo (Quaresma 25).
France (4-2-3-1): Lloris – Sagna, Koscielny, Umtiti, Evra; Pogba, Matuidi; Sissoko (Martial 110), Griezmann, Payet (Coman 58); Giroud (Gignac 78).