Euro 2020 - Real deal or merely pretenders? Wednesday’s clash will tell us a lot about France and Portugal
Ahead of the clash between France and Portugal in the final round of matches in Group F, Pete Sharland looks at what is at stake for both teams. Should changes be made after disappointing results last time out? If so, how many? Plus will tactical games come into the picture with Belgium, the Netherlands and potentially England waiting in the wings.
Portugal's forward Cristiano Ronaldo (C) shakes hands with Portugal's coach Fernando Santos (R) next to France's coach Didier Deschamps at the end of the Nations League football match between France and Portugal, on October 11, 2020 at the Stade de France
Judging a team after one can be considered an overreaction. After two might be jumping the gun. But three? After three games we can start to get a pretty good idea of who a team is.
It’s not often that a team at the European Championships or World Cup struggles to get out of the group and then goes on to make the final or even win it. There’s a reason that Italy in 1982 stand out. People like to point to 2010 Spain as a case study in why you don’t need to start well, but they did win their final two group matches after losing the opening one and topped the group. In 2012 Italy drew twice but were in a tough group that contained the team they wouldn’t eventually meet in the final. Similar in 2004 when Greece and Portugal were in the same group.
The best recent example might be France in 2006, who laboured to draws against Switzerland and South Korea before beating Togo 2-0 to reach the knockouts. They then took out Spain, Brazil and Portugal before losing against Italy in the final.
Our point is this, it is very hard to really struggle in a group and reach the final. So far France and Portugal have one good win and one disappointing result under their belts in the group stage of these European Championships. Wednesday’s game will tell us a lot about what kind of team they both are.
Coaches from Group F teams pose behind the trophy during the UEFA Euro 2020 football competition final draw in Bucharest on November 30, 2019 (L-R): head coach of Portugal Fernando Santos, head coach of Germany Joachim Loew and head coach of France Didier
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Let’s start with the defending champions, because they are in the more perilous position. On one hand things aren’t too bad because unless they get absolutely hammered, taking their goal difference to -2 or -3, they should qualify as one of the third-place teams. The problem is that if that does happen it will mean they failed to beat two good teams in France and Germany, and then will most likely face either Belgium or the Netherlands, two teams who have been perfect so far, albeit in easier groups.
Despite Hungary’s heroics against France you have to work on the assumption that they struggle to contain a Germany team that blew Portugal away. If that is the case the Germans would be on six, that means that Portugal have to beat France to avoid third.
But are they going to be capable of doing that? Portugal will play a more expansive game than Hungary even though they have better players, that should provide more space for some of the quick French players like Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann.
Some of the quotes coming out of the Portuguese camp makes you think that they clearly know what the issue is. Experienced central defender Pepe said "The Germany full-back won a corner and celebrated - we've got to match that attitude,” whilst his manager Fernando Santos added "You can't train aggressiveness, unless we organise a boxing match."
Speaking on Sunday after a surprise press conference to explain the Germany defeat Santos spoke about his team’s lack of aggression, pointing out that Germany’s front three committed more fouls (seven) than his entire team (five).
If that is the case then we might expect changes. Both Joao Palhinha and Renato Sanches would add some much needed bite to the midfield. Whilst Sanches likes to carry the ball up the field, Palhinha might offer better protection than either William Carvalho or Danilo Pereira, both of whom left Nelson Semedo in a horrendous position against Robin Gosens.
Speaking of horrendous positions, France defenders Benjamin Pavard and Raphael Varane looked as if they were running in sand as Hungary’s 31-year-old wing-back Attila Fiola gleefully skipped past the both of them. Pavard probably shouldn’t have been in that position in the first place, given his horrific head injury against Germany in the first game.
Benjamin Pavard en grande difficulté face à la Hongrie
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There will reportedly be changes for France. Theo Hernandez coming in for Lucas Hernandez is fine, and Corentin Tolisso might add a bit more solidity in the place of Adrien Rabiot. It is surprising to see reports in France suggest that Jules Kounde, primarily a centre-back, will come in for Pavard on the right. However he has done it in the past and often to great effect. It’s just been a little while since he did it on a consistent basis.
It’s a bit of a kick in the teeth for Lyon’s Leo Dubois but Kounde should offer more than Pavard and it’ll be interesting to see how France look differently with him in the team. Speaking after the Hungary game Griezmann said that the players were “angry,” similar to what was coming out of the Portugal camp.
If you can’t train aggressiveness as Santos says then it is mostly on the players, particularly the senior ones, rather than the two managers. All eyes for France will be on Karim Benzema, who remains goalless after his recall before the tournament. Deschamps has kept the faith with Benzema, and we don’t expect that to change here, but Olivier Giroud remains lurking in the wings, waiting for his chance.
Karim Benzema (France)
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But there are changes that can be made too. Deschamps is famously pragmatic in his approach for the national team and that is unlikely to change. A slight loosening of the shackles may not go amiss, particularly if Tolisso comes into the team. That could allow Paul Pogba even more freedom, alternatively he could lock down the right wing and give Griezmann the chance to come into the No 10 position more. That would then allow Pogba and Mbappe to dovetail. Pogba had great success going wider for Manchester United this season and we all know how much Mbappe loves to come inside. The key is to be unpredictable. It’s what they got so wrong against Hungary and Germany got right against Portugal. Although having said that by the end it was comical how predictable it was that they got in behind Semedo in that game, perhaps Mbappe, Pogba and Hernandez can do that.
After Germany’s disappointing loss to France in their opening match we learnt a hell of a lot about the players and the manager. Joachim Low showed the sort of experience you need as a successful international manager, keeping the first XI exactly the same, but making a few subtle tactical tweaks and you would imagine some man-management behind the scenes. Both Santos and Deschamps have triumphed at this level, and now they need to show their skill to secure top spot in the group.