And then there were two – although I think it would be a considerable stretch to argue that tomorrow’s 2016 European Championship final in Paris will be contested by the two best sides in the tournament.
Both France and Portugal have problem areas on the pitch and neither can be considered complete units. To that extent, at least, the final pairing is fitting because this is a European Championship which has lacked a truly dominant, outstanding team.
The French could hardly have had a smoother pathway to the final, with everything seeming to fall in their favour: the initial draw, their recovery time between games, minimal suspensions, getting us and Iceland in the knock-out stages and, when it came to what should have been their toughest test, coming up in the semi-final against a Germany team missing Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira and Mario Gomez.
And even then, when they were being comprehensively outplayed in the first half in Marseille – albeit by a German team which was a blunt instrument up front - an inexplicable handball by Bastian Schweinsteiger threw them a lifeline and changed the whole course of the game.
Which is not to say that the French don’t have admirable qualities, especially as an attacking force. With his six goals to-date making him the leading scorer at Euro 2016, Antoine Griezmann has been the team’s and the tournament’s outstanding player. And his have been goals which have really meant something, decisive goals, game-changing goals, not just icing on the cake.
Dimitri Payet, although quiet against Germany, has also stood out and Olivier Giroud has had a good tournament too.
The midfield is strong – Pogba, Mutuidi, Kante – and while, defensively, they’re weak, they’ve gotten away with it a little because of playing teams like ourselves, Iceland and even Germany who all failed to really test the fragile French rearguard.
On balance, they probably deserve their place in the final but, like I said, a lot of things have conspired to help their cause.
I want to say a few words in particular about Paul Pogba, given the hype surrounding the player. On the RTÉ panel we made a point of watching him closely and there’s no question but that he can be alarmingly erratic and lacking in concentration. For that reason, I don’t see him as being the kind of player who can run a game from midfield, neither a Schweinsteiger of old nor a Pirlo.
Pogba does have considerable qualities of strength and power and, as we saw in France’s second goal against Germany, is capable of producing a bit of magic around the opposition penalty area. But he’s no Messi, no Suarez, so even if they’re going to break the world transfer record to bring him to Old Trafford, I wouldn’t have him down as a certainty to change the fortunes of Manchester United.
Portugal scrambled their way somewhat through much of the tournament but, in their semi-final against Wales, they looked a compact team who all knew what they were about. Nani, who I thought might be past his sell-by date, has surprised me with what he has contributed to Portugal’s progress, but their two most impressive players have been young Renato Sanches and, of course, Ronaldo.
It’s been fascinating to watch Ronaldo in France. Whether because of injury or age or the loss of a yard of pace, it’s evident that he has modified his game. We haven’t seen those explosive bursts of speed that used to be his trademark. Instead, he now receives the ball, passes it and gets up around the box. Over the years, he has scored many of his goals from outside the penalty area, taking people on, coming inside and letting off shots from 20 or 25 yards. That’s not the Ronaldo we’re seeing at these Euro finals and, yet, if the supply is right, he is still the game-changer, the talisman, the Ronaldo of old – as he showed against Hungary and then with that brilliant header against Wales, a goal which turned an evenly-balanced game firmly in Portugal’s favour.
To be honest, I don’t think I’ve ever seen a better header of the ball: not only can Ronaldo get up high but he seems to be able to hold himself up there longer than anyone else. And the power of his neck muscles: in the goal against Wales, the ball was probably moving faster after it left his head than it had been when it was sent into the box.
I said at the beginning of this piece that almost everything seems to have gone the hosts’ way at this tournament and I think that will continue with France beating Portugal to lift the trophy tomorrow. They have the variety in their forward line, in particular, to come out on top in the Stade de France.
And, if that proves to be the case, you could also argue that it will represent a fitting victory for football and for the French people and even for a way of life after what happened in that very venue and elsewhere in Paris last November.
Everyone will understand where Didier Deschamps was coming from when, after the victory over Germany, he said: “We don’t have the power to solve the French people’s problems but we can ease their worries. There is a lot of passion and fervour. There is a lot of happiness all over France tonight.”
And no-one could begrudge them if their joy is complete, as I expect it will be, tomorrow night.
Since this will be my last column on Euro 2016, I wanted to finish with some further reflections on what Ireland’s experience at the tournament might mean for Martin O’Neill’s team as we now begin turning our attention to the start of the World Cup qualifiers in September.
Unfortunately, I can’t say that I feel any more confident about our chances of getting to Russia than I did before we played our opening Euro finals game Against Sweden four weeks ago.
I still think that Martin has a limited pool of playing talent from which to choose. On the positive side, the likes of Seamus Coleman, Robbie Brady and Jeff Hendrick have their best days ahead of them but you can’t say the same about important players like Jon Walters, John O’Shea, Glenn Whelan and Wes Hoolahan.
The group we’re in will be a tough nut to crack – and, because of the format, certainly tougher than it was for Ireland to get to the finals of the expanded Euros.
But, for now, as Euro 2016 reaches its climax, I do believe supporters are still entitled to bask in the feelgood mood which came out of Ireland’s performances in France. For the people who love Irish football, the tournament gave us all some really special moments: Wes Hoolahan’s lovely goal against the Swedes, Robbie Brady’s memorable winner against Italy and then Ireland going ahead against the French and playing as well as we did against them in the first half.
I don’t want to be a killjoy here. I really welcomed the uplifting emotions we all shared watching Ireland at the Euros but it’s also my job to be logical and honest and to call it as it is.
And the truth is that I don’t think we can count on the feelgood mood around the national team being here to stay.