Portugal’s men o’war rule Europe

France 0, Portugal 1 (AET): Portugal have had to face being called a one-man team for a long as Cristiano Ronaldo has kicked a football but on the night when they lost their talisman to injury, they provided one of the greatest backs-to-the-wall victories the European Championships have ever seen, as substitute Eder ended France’s dream in Paris last night.
Portugal’s men o’war rule Europe

Rated huge underdogs from the very start, playing against the hosts in the Stade de France in St Denis, nobody gave Fernando Santos’ men much hope of lifting the trophy — at least not unless Ronaldo did something special out of the blue.

So when Ronaldo limped off in tears after 24 minutes the prospect of the 2004 runners-up ending the tournament as champions seemed almost impossible.

Yet somehow, through teamwork and togetherness, they found a way.

The scenes of sheer jubilation at the end underlined just how tough a match this had been for Ronaldo’s teammates — and the Portugal fans sung his name to the rafters as he cheered from the sidelines.

It wasn’t the way he had imagined it but the Real Madrid man had finally achieved his biggest dream, the one thing missing on his incredible CV — a trophy with his country.

It was hardly a classic game — some will say the fact at team that finished third in their group without winning game went on to lift the trophy doesn’t exactly do the competition justice.

But when substitute Eder, the former Swansea City player who never managed to score a goal in Wales, turned to arrow a perfect low shot past Hugo Lloris in the second half of extra-time, nobody in Portugal cared.

Whatever your opinion of Ronaldo, and there are plenty with a pretty negative view of the Real Madrid forward who loves himself a little too much for a profession that really ought to be a team sport, the sight of him in tears as he left the field in St Denis tugged at the heartstrings of all but the most cold-blooded. So perhaps it was right that he had a happy ending.

The striker may not be everybody’s cup of tea but the he is, nevertheless, a quite outstanding player — as he proved in this tournament— and he deserved better.

Twice in Paris he tried to carry on, clearly in significant pain, but in the end he had to accept defeat; not something he has been used to over the years.

His departure made a difficult job even tougher for a Portugal side who have hardly been inspiring in Euro 2016 but who had scraped their way through each round thanks to the inspiration of their captain and no small amount of luck.

But how well, they responded; resorting to a siege mentality, they almost looked more resilient without Ronaldo in the side and even, on a couple of occasions, got into the France penalty area after what had been pretty one-sided affair to that point.

Even the home crowd, so vibrant and racuous at the start, seemed strangely subdued by Ronaldo’s departure; and if there was less pressure on Portugal to win this game at kick-off then there was almost none by the time they began the second half. Santos’ men knew it was them against the world, and they seemed to quite enjoy it.

By contrast, France had begun the game at a fast pace, driven on by Payet, Griezmann and Sissoko, they almost opened the scoring when Griezmann’s header from a Payet pass was superbly saved by Rui Patricio. Giroud also saw a header from a corner saved before Sissoko’s smart turn and shot was well fielded by the Sporting Lisbon man.

Les Bleus continued to dominate play after the break, in fact if anything Portugal sat deeper and deeper, but that didn’t mean finding an opening was any easier.

Rui Patricio, an under-rated goalkeeper, chose this night to have the game of his life as he kept out a Giroud shot at his near post and then produced an excellent save low to his right to deny Moussa Sissoko, the Newcastle man who was surprisingly one of France’s most potent attacking weapons on the night.

Griezmann, perhaps tiring in his 70th game of a long season, found space harder to find the deeper Portugal dropped and with Real Madrid defender Pepe doing a superb job of marshalling the back four — and William Carvalho expertly protecting the area in front — the backs-to-the-wall performance of Fernando Santos’ men grew in intensity.

The nearest France came to finding the net in normal time was an injury-time effort from substitute Andre-Pierre Gignac which came back off the inside of the post with Patricio, for once, beaten.

You could feel the tension in the home crowd as extra-time arrived while the voices of Portugal fans grew louder and more guttoral; if this was a fight to the end, then they were ready for it.

Ronaldo appeared on the pitch to galvanise his team in the short break before play resumed and only the pace of sub Kingsley Coman was troubling the Portuguese defence as they attempted to see the match out to penalties.

In fact they almost won it when left-back Raphael Guerreiro curled a 20m free-kick against the crossbar. Then, against the odds, and with the whole of France in tears, substitute Eder twisted to fire home an angled shot from outside the area and create history for his country.

In a season of shocks and underdogs, Portugal have provided one more chapter.

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