Tuesday, 19 July 2016

Euro 2016: The rest

Due to ill health, the conclusion to the Euro blogs have been nearly entirely undertaken by Jon Arnold on his lonesome. Much obliged!

Each of his bits were written the night the teams crashed out. Or didn't, in one case.


Poland






Jon: If Poland had been still been reliant upon Lewandowski for goals they’d have been in trouble. His reputation preceded him and so he was essentially marked out of the game for much of the tournament, only escaping the shackles to score the opener in the quarter-final. But they didn’t; for all Ian Wright muttered about his not having arrived at the tournament he very much had. The real story was of how unselfish the superstar player was in dragging players out of position and occupying defenders so that others around him had space. It’s the act of generosity only the very best superstars perform, working hard to allow understudies and bit part players the limelight. It won’t be remembered as Lewandowski’s tournament and fantasy football owners will no doubt be a little disappointed by their returns but quietly, in a way which might not show up on stat sheets but always gets noticed by coaches, he had a fine couple of weeks. But then that summarises Poland’s tournament; a whole lot of unselfishness and teamwork.  Nawalka refused to single any individual out for praise and that’s an apt epitaph to their tournament.


Overall they’ll be pleased with the way the tournament went as their performance here was a real sign of progress for Polish football. They comfortably qualified from the group, beating Northern Ireland far more comfortably than the 1-0 scoreline suggested, and were by no means inferior in drawing with Germany.  They were the better side for long stretches against the Swiss and were perhaps unlucky when Shaqiri produced the goal of the tournament to equalise against them. The only think I can’t forgive them for is failing to halt Portugal’s Argentina 1990 style run through the tournament; after going ahead inside two minutes they were stifled by the blanket of the Portuguese defence and midfield. Despite that they go home without being beaten on the field, which bodes well for the World Cup qualifiers. But still, bloody Portugal…


Michael: And you know something?


Jon: Don’t say it…


Michael: Portugal are going to win.


Jon: *breathes sigh of relief*


Michael: What? I’m telling you, Law of Sod says they’re going to win the tournament.


Jon: Ah, but the Collins jinx has now been applied. We’re safe!


Michael: You say that, but haven’t you noticed what sort of a year 2016 is so far?


Jon: Good point, I’ll get the black armbands for the death of football as we know it…





Belgium




Jon: They started by being clinically dismantled by Italy and ended it blown away by the verve and determination of the Welsh. In between they cruised to three comfortable wins without conceding a goal. Would the real Belgium please stand up?


This Belgium side remain an enigma; a team that’s risen to no 2 in the world rankings but which continually contrives to look far less than the sum of its parts at crucial times. In fairness their eventual exit can be put in the context of the injuries which fatally weakened their central defence; for all the excellence of Wales’s performance their first two goals and arguably their third all played on the frailty of the Belgian back four. What was also evident in the defeat was a lack of what former England rugby coach Clive Woodward considered the virtue that separates the great from the good: calm thinking under pressure. De Bruyne moved away from the post when holding his position would have enabled him to prevent Ashley Williams equalising. Nainggolan somehow lost Williams to allow him to make that header. Three Belgian defenders were sent the wrong way by one admittedly brilliant turn from Robson-Kanu. Pressure couldn’t be built on the Welsh defence as passes and crosses continually went astray in the final third. Above all though Lukaku’s lack of awareness cost them golden chances that tend to cost in knockout football; he was slow to see opportunities developing on several occasions when a more astute striker might have scored.   Their confusion when opponents asked questions of them was positively Englandesque.


On the other hand their victories over Ireland, Sweden and Hungary were marked by much better football and with talents like Hazard, Nainggolan and de Bruyne able to express themselves – the same was even true of the first twenty minutes against Wales. In the context of the first and last games these victories look achieved against lesser teams simply by weight of talent; like England’s Golden Generation Wilmots finds himself trying to shoehorn a number of superb individual talents into the team without quite having an idea of how they fit together. So what if that jigsaw piece doesn’t quite go there? If I take a saw and a hammer to it, it damn well will! Picture doesn’t look quite right but so what?


Ultimately Belgium never did enough to dispel the oft expressed opinion that they’re floating far too high in the world rankings; their talents might merit it but their team play doesn’t. Against the only two opponents with the ability to hurt them they fell apart badly; against the lesser sides they made hay. Cricket has a phrase for such teams; ‘flat track bullies’, the big boys who’ll take lesser opponents apart for fun but who fall apart against the other big boys or bad luck. A brilliant collection of individuals then, but not a great team and who’ll be regarding this as an opportunity missed given how the draw worked out for them.


 




Italy


Jon: It sounds ridiculous to say this about a team who exited in the quarter-finals but this was a superb tournament for Italy. Missing Verratti, Matchisio and Montolivio through injury and with de Rossi unfit they still managed to look one of the two best teams of the tournament and only stalled due to bumping into the other elite team. Even then they only exited after an epic penalty shootout which mixed high art and low farce in equal measure.


Where to start? With their captain, who reminded everyone why, for all the plaudits lavished on the likes of van der Sar, Casillas and Neuer, he’s quite probably the finest keeper of the last couple of decades. Not only was he as reliable as ever in the rare event of the Italian rearguard being breached he gave us some magnificent comedy with his failed swing on a crossbar and then joined in Ireland’s celebrations as they reached the knockout stage. It sounds ridiculous to say that the most expensive player in his position in football history should be regarded as a cult hero but he really should; an elite level player who knows much of the point of the game is to savour the joy of the great moments.  In front of him his Juve teammates Barzagli, Bonucci and Chiellini demonstrated the benefits of having players who’ve developed an understanding over seasons at club level. Fans brought up on the Premier League, where excitement is prized over technique, might have been bored rigid by the first half of Germany-Italy but it’s worth looking at again for a masterclass in tactical defending, in closing space and in the dark arts of tactical fouling. The Italian love of defending might be a cliché but clichés rarely form without a reason.


The performance of the defence wasn’t in much doubt but the key to Italy’s tournament really lay in their midfield and attack, where what looked like deep structural problems turned out to be nothing of the sort. Pelle might ever have been in contention for the golden boot but in the modern era where forwards are often more spearheads to hold up the ball and open space up for the more skilful players behind him he was absolutely exemplary, wearing down defences and still having the stamina and alertness to seal the wins against Belgium and Spain. Eder was the rapier to Pelle’s broadsword, fast and skilful and providing a magnificent goal against Sweden which sealed progress at the earliest possible point. Behind them, they might not have Pirlo anymore.


Michael: *sob*


Jon: …but wisely Conte didn’t directly replace him because well, the only players who might have come close to replace him that we saw at the tournament were Spanish or Welsh. Although they didn’t face arguably the tournament’s best midfield in Croatia they faced the other three with arguably the most talent; Belgium, Spain and Germany. It’s worth noting that two of those games were won comfortably and the other one was an even contest. Giaccherini set the tone in the first game and had a magnificent tournament, particularly given the demands of Conte’s system, Parolo and De Rossi being equally formidable. Weakest Italian squad in a decade? Perhaps, but then that only emphasises Italy’s high standards and Conte’s shrewd coaching. If Chelsea fans can show a little patience whilst Conte’s ideas bed in they’ll have a lot to look forward to in the near future.  And the lesson we should probably all learn? Never underestimate Italy, even if they’re fielding a team of Calabrian donkeys. Because even those donkeys would still be technically and tactically ahead of just about any other side.





Iceland




Jon: If there’s been one team throughout this tournament who’ve been mischaracterised and patronised it’s Iceland. That judgement’s based on their population; but then if football might was truly related to numbers we’d see most national sides crushed beneath the juggernauts of China, India, Russia and Bangladesh and Uruguay wouldn’t have a single World Cup or Copa America to their name. Size of population merely tells you the likelihood of national success; football’s history is full of little flukes and quirks that tell you odds can be defied. 


An Iceland side that beat the Netherlands home and away in qualifying and have been close to reaching the finals of major tournaments on several occasions shouldn’t have been regarded as the minnows bigger teams often patronisingly seemed to regard them as. In particular the cheer that went up from several members of the England camp when a late winner against Austria meant they faced Iceland rather than Portugal stands as the biggest moment of hubris of the tournament. On the upside, it does mean that the following defeat shouldn’t really be regarded as the ultimate humiliation it’s being painted as.


Iceland weren’t the most aesthetically pleasing team at this tournament in terms of the modern love of passing and pressing but then football’s often about clashes of styles and ideas as much as it is any aesthetic judgement. Iceland’s style was a throwback to the virtues of Charles Reep; direct football which gets the ball into the box as quickly as possible. Instead of being a hideous crime in the way the Wimbledon of Dave Beasant, Vinnie Jones and John Fashnau were often accused of, this was almost refreshing and effective – no team managed to keep a clean sheet against Iceland. As so often, the answer to a fashionable style of play can often be found by scouring football history and putting a modern twist on old solutions.  Aron Gunnarsson’s long throws, scourge of the English, proved that some old weapons never go out of style – Rory Delap must’ve been watching that first goal against the English approvingly. But to paint them as a simple long ball team would also be unfair; Gylfi Sigurdsson’s guile in the final third was equally, if not more important.


All this was evident in their first game, against a Portuguese side who’d styled themselves favourites for the tournament. A 1-1 draw didn’t flatter the Portuguese, indeed Ronaldo’s complaints about small teams after the game were a backhanded high compliment. They were hugely unfortunate not to beat Hungary, a late own goal costing them, but that late winner against a desperate Austria saw them through.


Their win over England was, of course, one of the great moments of the tournament. Even allowing for the tactical deficiencies of the English the resilience evident in immediately recovering to equalise and then to take the lead before 20 minutes were played was remarkable. Their organisation and workrate was exceptional; England never seemed to create as many chances as their build up play suggested they should but in 70 minutes they failed to carve out a clear chance and went to pieces, unable to complete simple passes.  It wasn’t the victory that was striking, it was the manner of that victory. Not reliant on fortune or favourable refereeing decisions but utterly deserved. The formation clapping between players and fans after the match will live long in the memory. The 5-2 loss to France is almost irrelevant bar noting that even four goals behind the Icelanders refused to give up and made France work for their victory. Sometimes the draw in a tournament can tell lies about how good a team is; here it didn’t. 


Lars Lagerback has moulded a fine team; the trick now will be to maintain their standards now nobody will underestimate them.




Wales



But now the past is all gone
The future is ours to be won
You’re just too good to be true
We can’t take our eyes off you
-          Together Stronger – Manic Street Preachers


Jon: There’s a strand that disappeared from the English footballing psyche over a decade or so. It began with Bodo Illgner saving Stuart Pearce’s penalty in Turin in 1990 and arguably becomes firmly embedded with David Beckham’s little kick at Diego Simeone in Saint Etienne in 1998. 


Arguably that kick and subsequent penalty shoot-out defeat is where the joy of tournament football fuelled by Euro 96 curdles into fear and the hope that this time they won’t be the scapegoat. Perhaps the last note of hope and joy is there in the 1998 version of Three Lions, which opens with ‘We still believe…’  Since then, with the arguable exception of 2004, summer football’s been a cause of national anxiety rather than national optimism; up until this year England were the only home nation to qualify for an international tournament this century. 


And they forgot how to enjoy themselves; stripping away the daft joys like official songs in favour of dour grey failure, scapegoats and extensive recriminations. History is a suit of lead that every player seems to don during every tournament. To modern fans, that’s what tournaments are, exercises in fear and loathing to put Hunter S Thompson’s 70s gonzo masterpieces to shame.



And then along came Wales for the first time in 58 years and showed them that there was another way.


From the outset Wales had the right attitude. Masters of the anthem the Manics came up with an official record, Together Stronger, that combined the euphoria of the end of 58 years of hurt with team spirit and ended up joyous rather than embarrassing. Not to be outdone, the Super Furry Animals released an unofficial tournament song of their own, Bing Bong. This was clearly a nation relishing their moment in the spotlight – after all, as generations of fans know only too well, when will the next one come along? And it was audible in the first airing of Land of My Fathers at a tournament since 1958; the pre-match rendition was never less than spine-chilling. And even in adversity, with the last-second loss to England and eventual defeat to Portugal, the fans kept singing and backing the team. And the team clearly appreciated that support and reciprocated with interest; celebrating with the fans at each match end. 


All this would matter little if the team had given them nothing to dream about. The team could have struggled from day one and made a creditable but dull exit in the group stages and few would have thought anything less of them, perhaps lamenting that the talents of Bale and Ramsey hadn’t been fully expressed on a big stage. But from the first moments it was evident that this wouldn’t be the case. Bale struck a glorious free-kick against Slovakia; Wales were not here to make up the numbers but to have a go. This was a team prepared to commit men forward; along with Italy they were one of the few teams which committed men ahead of the ball when attacking. And that first game proved they had spirit; after Slovakia had equalised they were able to find a late, scuffed winner from Hal Robson-Kanu. 


Improbably that wouldn’t even be the unheralded Robson-Kanu’s finest hour but it let the principality know it could dream. Another Bale free-kick against England and a halftime lead had them daring to dream of a straightforward qualification but the weight of English striking talent and poor fortune overwhelmed them in the last minute.  Perhaps it was the one time fear crept into their game as they dropped deeper and deeper to hold on.


Still, in what was essentially a knockout game they produced arguably their best performance of the Coleman years to that point. An injury hit Russia were a poor side, allowing Bale and Ramsey the freedom of the park, and Taylor and Gunter reveled in tearing Russia apart down the flanks. Taylor even somehow managed to score the first goal of his professional career in the win. And there was a theme; in adversity Wales generally found someone willing to be a hero. It could be the superstars, Bale or Ramsey; it could be the unsung Ben Davies or Welsh Pirlo Joe Allen or even a man without a club producing a moment of sublime skill when it was needed most. Their last 16 tie against Northern Ireland was a tight game decided by a moment of Bale brilliance; the one moment of real attacking quality in a game which otherwise showcased the merits of British defending.  It was a different test from any of the ones they’d faced so far, arguably one in which Wales were second best for long periods but they found a way to scrape through it. 


For Wales though, the tournament will be remembered for a rainy night in Lille; practically a home tie for the Belgian side ranked second in the world. It began ominously with bodies being put on the line to deny Belgium three times in one attack and Nainggolan’s thunderous yet precise strike putting the Belgians into a well-deserved lead. 


What followed was incontestably the finest hour in Welsh football history; the footballing equivalent of dreamland where everything is in sync. Players raise themselves; the songs gain extra decibels and even fortune smiles. It began with Ashley Williams thumping a header into the corner of the net as Kevin de Bruyne deserted his designated position on the post. It continued through to the joy of substitute Sam Vokes’s header confirming their progress to the semi-finals. 


Most of all though it was encapsulated in the move that brought their second goal. A searching long ball from Bale found a foraging Ramsey; his square ball to the penalty spot found the man with no club, Hal Robson-Kanu. Robson-Kanu is not, by trade, a striker. Instead he’s a winger mainly deployed up front to distract defenders and create space for Bale and Ramsey. Coming into the tournament the most notable thing about him was the way his name provided an uplifting end to the list of Welsh players in ‘Together Stronger’.  


 He isn’t a player that, in the pressure of international knockout football, you expect to produce a Cruyff turn that sends three players flying past him in the wrong direction. 


He isn’t a player you then expect to produce a composed finish to complete a work of footballing art the match of anything Messi, Suarez, Ronaldinho or either Ronaldo had produced in their careers. 


Given the Welsh propensity to mythologise such moments in story and song it promises to become a moment to rival Gareth Edwards’s try for the Barbarians in 1973; to supplant and exceed the Mabinogion, Under Milk Wood, Delilah or even twenty-first century Doctor Who as the greatest moments of Welsh culture. It’s the kind of moment a team can feed upon in moments of crisis; the possibility of anyone, even a less heralded player, standing up and turning their-self into a hero. The thought of looking daft banished when glory is in reach; the fearlessness to think creatively in a crisis. 


That’s what football’s all about; the team and the individuals within it co-operating to become something greater. Bale and Ramsey (and perhaps, at times, Joe Allen) were clearly of greater creative ability than anyone within the squad but they played with a refreshing selflessness that harnessed their talents to a collective greater good. It should be noted that for a team supposedly over-reliant on Bale this performance against Belgium saw him provide neither assist nor goal (though his pass created the second goal).


The law of football however says that such moments come with a price; the one Wales paid was Ramsey’s suspension for what looked like a needless yet instinctive handball. Chris Coleman was upbeat following the match, telling his country to ‘keep dreaming’ but it was clearly a bitter low; Ramsey had laid four goals on in the tournament and without him Portugal could concentrate on subduing Bale in the semi-finals. On that night though it was a distant thought; it was a night to revel in what had been achieved. Wales’s triumph had come in being the smallest nation to make the semi-finals of an international competition for 46 years. They outlasted not only the English but the likes of Belgium, Italy and Croatia. A kind draw may have helped but their run to the semi-finals was unquestionably the story of the 2016 Euros; a gigantic overperformance where the other semi-finalists might feel progress to that round is their natural place in the game; all the other teams had multiple semi-final runs to their name over the years. Wales matched the best performance by a home nation in a foreign tournament; more importantly they dared a nation to dream, a feat matched at this tournament by only Iceland and France.



The semi-final itself was an inevitable let down; Andy King of Leicester gamely tried to match Ramsey’s impact but was not up to the job, Bale popped up all over the pitch to try and spark his team but there was no real spark left. They came up against a team that matched their own in terms of defensive organisation and with their own Real Madrid superstar. Ronaldo’s majestic header and a mishit shot that turned into a perfect assist for Nani brought the fairytale to a fizzling end rather than a blazing one; moments of quality and fortune that separated two largely even teams.   


Wales, like everyone bar Hungary, were stifled by a team whose virtues were mirror images of their own; in such a game the first goal was always likely to be vital and so it proved. Wales struggled manfully to create something but never looked like finding a cutting edge. To Pele in 1958 the name of Ronaldo in 2016 can be added; the elite player who overcame spirit and determination. And to John Charles’s name add Aaron Ramsey’s; the key player suffering a costly enforced absence. 


Already it feels like an afterthought in assessing Wales’s tournament though; an odd epilogue to a dazzling story, the disappointing destination at the end of a scintillating journey. For Wales this was a case of having the freedom to invent their own history rather than be weighed down by the travails of others. In an often dour tournament they provided much joy and verve. 


On Sunday night another team will lift the trophy; one of the familiar names from the business end of tournaments. All sport, reduced to its basest level, is about winning, about trophies and silverware. But to reduce it like that ignores the emotion; the feelings and memories a great achievement brings.


 Over the duration of the tournament I’ve seen friends finding ways and means to venture back and forth to France, revelling in their first opportunity to experience their national team at a major tournament. At a time when the country was deeply divided over wider issues we were able to celebrate as one; together, stronger. Even when the journey ended there was no bitterness toward the team which knocked us out, simply celebrations of a summer of magnificent memories. It was the greatest time there’s ever been to be a Welsh football fan and frankly it really felt like everyone else was just a walk-on part in our story. We seized the possibilities of our future and in the end it really wasn’t too good to be true. Someone else will lift the trophy in Paris on Sunday night but for three weeks, whatever the record books say, we knew what it was to dream and feel like champions.







Germany




Jon: What’s the point of football?


Michael: After those semi-finals, I’m asking myself that too!


Jon: At the most basic level football’s about scoring more goals than your opposition; about winning. Everything else is fundamentally secondary to that. There are almost an infinite number of ways to achieve that; you can get things wrong, have almost no possession and have no shots to your opponent carving out thirty or so and still achieve victory; conversely you can get things absolutely right; dominate possession, keep your opponents out of your half and create all those chances. I say this to put things in contest; for this entire tournament this was clearly an excellent German side. Khedira controlled games, Ozil provided a creative spring and the speed and accuracy of their passing was as much a technical marvel as it has been since 2006. Vorsprung durch Technik as the advert used to have it.


What cost them in the end was the one major flaw in their game. Germany were the most consistent side in the tournament in terms of quality; France were unimpressive in the group stages, Italy were clearly second best to the Germans and Wales found their limits at the last. Only Poland truly matched them throughout a game. The problem was football’s most basic and vital ingredient; goals. They kept clean sheets easily enough;  they didn’t let a goal in until the quarter-finals and even then they essentially gifted their opponents all three goals. A 2-0 victory over Ukraine was sealed with a  late breakaway goal; Poland held them comfortably; Northern Ireland restricted a rampant team to a single goal. Only against Slovakia did the scoreline reflect the way they dominated a game; they could even afford to miss a penalty in a victory only rivalled for its comfort by France’s win over Iceland. 


The signs were there against Italy; they made a very good Italy side look ordinary for long periods even when they lost Khedira. Mario Gomez created Mesut Ozil’s opener but tore thigh muscles shortly afterward. Gomez was the sole out and out striker in the German squad; without him a side which was struggling to turn dominance into goals became impotent. Germany didn’t score a goal after his injury. They barely survived a boneheaded handball from Boateng which allowed Italy to take the game to extra time; for the first time in the tournament the lack of goals became a problem; one error almost saw them departing in the quarter-finals. That lack of goals was such a problem it even extended to the penalty shoot-out; few under 40 could recall a German missing in the most pressurized circumstances but to the shock and amazement of the entire world three Germans actually missed.


Michael: Don’t mention Muller…


Jon: Muller seemed determined not to score in the Euros in any way, shape or form…


Michael: *Paddington Bear stare*


Jon: …and I can only assume that Ozil and Schweinsteiger have been infected with Englishness given their misses. 


They were the better side for much of the semi-final but for all their possession they rarely troubled Hugo Lloris, certainly not seriously until injury time.  The precision tooled instrument of a team had no cutting edge to reflect the balance of play; the polar opposite of THAT World Cup semi-final. They’ll likely be at the business end in the Russian World Cup in two years; they’re simply too good a side not to be. The defence of their title though likely rests on Low’s finding a way to turn quality into goals; perhaps next time he’ll bring more than one conventional striker to the tournament.  For now though they go home as the definition of tragic heroes; a team undone by one fundamental flaw.








France



Jon: Until the final there were three inevitabilities in life: death, taxes and France winning tournaments on home soil. Those previous tournaments had been a procession towards the inevitable; the great star of French football indelibly marking a tournament as his own. Platini in ’84, Zidane in ’98… this time it was supposed to be Pogba.


Only, of course, it didn’t end like that. Pogba may well end the summer as the most expensive player in the history of football but that will simply reflect Manchester United’s desperation to give Jose Mourinho the players he wants at any cost. Even being dropped for the second match didn’t provoke him into raising his game; perhaps the best that could be said was that he played a large part in the collective bullying of Iceland in the quarter-finals. Aside from that he was neutralised by the opposition and Didier Deschamps’s tactics. Instead the star who emerged was a familiar one for watchers of European club football; Antoine Griezmann who might just be the coolest player in the penalty area in world football right now. Payet and Giroud’s general excellence as part of a collective attacking unit should also be mentioned, though Payet became less and less effective as the tournament wore on.


In truth France largely cantered to the final; the schedule always favoured them with long breaks between knockout games until the semi-finals and they weren’t really tested until the semi-finals when they were outplayed by Germany but more lethal. They did just enough to squeeze past limited Romania and Albania sides and struggled past the Irish in the round of 16. The comfortable win against Iceland was the exception that masked their fragility. That said it should be recognised that their supposed defensive weak links were rarely exposed; generally they were as impressive as any side in their organisation.


It’d be churlish to damn France on one result that would almost certainly have been different had Griezmann’s header been a foot lower of Gignac’s scuffed shot a few inches rightwards. Knockout football is a brutal game of fine margins and we’re running the rule over flaws rather than how they won. France were one of the more entertaining sides of the tournament; they came with flair, imagination in attack and several late goals attest to their desire and fitness. 


They lacked the luck of their predecessors in home tournaments in a tight game and couldn’t quite take the chances when it counted. 


Ultimately they’ll be regarded as a failure for not raising the trophy at the end of the tournament when everything was set up for a coronation. France were perhaps the least flawed of the big sides at this tournament; their defence conceded relatively few chances and their attack found goals easy to come by until the final. Perhaps it wasn’t Zidane or Platini they lacked; it was a Makelele or Deschamps himself, the modest players who could set the pace and control games. They could defend, they could score but domination was limited to a sparkling 45 minutes against Iceland. Ultimately they were good but not quite good enough.  



Michael: And in the end, that only leaves one team. Who'd have thought it?







Michael: Wasn't it funny when the moth started trying to eat Ronaldo?


Jon: Oh, yes.

Romance is what keeps most of us coming back to football; the thrilling cup runs, the journeymen getting their moment in the sun or even the unlikely titles – the Euro wins of Denmark and Greece, Liverpool’s Miracle of Istanbul or extraordinary title wins from the likes of Montpellier or Leicester. It’s what moves the soul and gives you the memories that keep you coming back through long, cold winters or soul-numbingly turgid 0-0 draws that turn into will-sapping 1-0 defeats through late, scrappy goals.  Fernando Santos even spelled it out in the lead-up to the final - ‘In between being pretty and being at home , or being ugly and being here, I prefer to be ugly.’ Portugal were fundamentally the anti-romantics; a well-drilled side reliant on a star player for moments that would separate them from the opposition. They’re the type of side that Roy Hodgson, Sam Allardyce, Fabio Capello, Ottmar Hitzfeld and even  Jose Mourinho can adore; who can be shown in coaching seminars as examples of how to defend.


Except… sometimes a side’s so fundamentally joyless they somehow pass through a black hole into an anti-matter universe where they become the story for the romantics. A side who scraped through their group in third, who were pushed into the less testing half of the draw thanks to Amor Ingvi Traustason’s last minute winner for Iceland. Who nullified superior opposition in Croatia and then went on to neutralise arguably the three best forwards in Europe (Lewandowski, Bale and Greizmann). Who played 103 of the 120 minutes of the final without the player who’s been their talisman for well over a decade. Much will be made of their winning only one match in 90 minutes; more importantly they didn’t lose a game whether that was over 90 minutes, 120 minutes or on penalties. It’s an oft-forgotten fact that tenacity and organisation go a long way in major tournaments; Denmark of ’92, Greece of 2004, Wales here… English media gently mocked the Germans for a supposed Teutonic efficiency and lack of flair or Italy for their pride in defence but hey, who are the most successful European sides through the history of tournament football?


In this case we should give credit where it’s deserved. Certainly Portugal rode their luck at times with Griezmann missing a relatively simple headed chance and Gignac hitting the post in the last minute but their gameplan essentially depended on minimising the opposition’s ability to carve out clear chances. For that credit has to go to the goalkeeper and back four as a unit; one aberration against Hungary aside they were magnificent. Rui Patricio was the model of calm and Cedric, Pepe, Fonte and Guerriero rarely looked troubled. In fact this tournament could probably be considered a corrective to the usual narrative. Everyone knows Pepe as one of the filthiest defenders around, but bad defenders don’t hang around at Real Madrid for that long. Ronaldo’s goals and ego have stolen the credit with club and country but his nous and defensive abilities have arguably been just as important for both. 


All this said, it needs to be remembered that Portugal provided us with one of the most joyful games of the tournament; the 0-0 draw with Austria and the funniest game of Ronaldo’s career; with masterful comic effect he contrived to miss a series of chances culminating in a missed penalty. Twitter has yet to recover from the sustained belly laughs.


Perhaps, in the end, it wasn’t just Ronaldo’s ego talking when he declared them pre-tournament favourites. We were all laughing then – Portugal just didn’t win major tournaments, not even with Eusebio, Simoes, Augusto and Torres. No way could they get past all those great teams.
We’re not laughing now.


Michael: You know what this means!


Jon: What?


Michael: My predicted winners actually won. I'm 3 for 7 in predicting final tournament winners. 


Jon: You're stretching that by picking a side in the last sixteen through pessimism, and then ignoring every 2014 World Cup prediction you made after June 2010, right?


Michael: three for seven...



That'll do the Euro blogs for 2016. I hope at some point when people are less ill - ok, when I am - we can have a proper retrospective of the event with Gav and Joao and myself and Mr Arnold. He's brought the analysis, so we can do the jokes and stuff at a later point. But for now, so long...

Well, until the next blog of course.