The Rise of Griezmann and Other Factors That Could Determine Sunday's Final

Alex Dunn@@aldunn80Featured ColumnistJuly 9, 2016

Antoine Griezmann is the key for France in Sunday's Euro 2016 final against Portugal in Paris.
Antoine Griezmann is the key for France in Sunday's Euro 2016 final against Portugal in Paris.Associated Press

Football is cruel a lot more often than it is redemptive. Had it been an odd year, Antoine Griezmann would have spent the summer pursing his lips into a tight smile whenever anyone wanted to talk to him about football. 

Forget the 32 goals he had scored for Atletico Madrid. Forget his totemic presence as a butterfly among Diego Simeone's bulldogs. Forget the fact he'd established himself as one of the continent's finest talents. All he would have thought about is that missed penalty in the UEFA Champions League final against Real Madrid.

Beautiful losers are, after all, still losers.

For Griezmann's sake, and France's, a busy summer of 50 matches over 30 days has allowed no time for maudlin moping on far-flung beaches over what might have been. Sunday's Euro 2016 final provides its leading goalscorer the perfect opportunity to exorcise any lingering demons.

Portugal, you have been warned. Griezmann is in no mood to let up, even if his mother is Portuguese.

He left the pitch on Thursday evening to an ovation in Marseille so electric the Stade Velodrome could have had a power cut and still it would have been possible to make out his smile. France's first win over Germany in an international tournament since 1958 (Just Fontaine scored four goals in a 6-3 third-fourth place play-off in Gothenburg) was secured courtesy of a pair of well-taken goals from the 25-year-old.

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It takes his tally to six. That's twice as many as any other player at Euro 2016. Griezmann is only the second player to score more than five goals at a European Championship, the other being compatriot Michel Platini, who remarkably managed nine in 1984. It is not expected the outgoing UEFA president will attend Sunday's final, despite an invite.

A mini-masterpiece of a match in Marseille, amid a glut of games only a mother could really love, has lit the blue touch paper for France. Griezmann has been both the catalyst and driving force, of that there is little doubt. Stepping up to take a penalty in the Germany game after the one he missed against Real Madrid was the act of a player now ready to lead from the front.

"I missed my penalty in the Champions League final and I really wanted to take a penalty in another important match," he said, via the BBC. "I'm pleased to have taken that decision, and to have scored."

He's not quite to France what Cristiano Ronaldo is to Portugal, but he's certainly a lot closer to usurping Europe's best player than his more feted team-mate Paul Pogba. The way he glides past players as though equipped with skis on a field of snow, while everyone else is wearing stilettos, is where the rhythm of his genius starts to hit its stride.

Disciplinarian Didier Deschamps is not prone to sentimentality, given pragmatism has served him so well both as a player and manager, yet his decision to afford Griezmann the adulation of the crowd, in replacing him with two minutes remaining against Germany, was in his own way a public show of appreciation. Maybe even affection. A proud father, just one who favours handshakes over hugs.

Griezmann started the tournament looking as though he felt the world was waiting to see how he'd recovered from that missed penalty. What should have been intuitive felt forced.

Against Romania in France's opening group match, his game appeared hurried. Lacking any of its usual gracefulness, he was hooked by Deschamps not long past the hour mark. He was then dropped (or rested if you're more polite) for the Albania game before coming off the substitutes' bench to score France's second goal in injury time. Had Anthony Martial made more of his chance, Griezmann's summer of redemption may have been over before it had even begun.

A goalless draw with Switzerland concluded the hosts' group stage. It's fair to say Platini was not at this stage worried about his European Championship goal record. A Griezmann hat-trick on Sunday to draw level with France's prince-in-hiding, anyone? A tattoo on his arm reads: "Make your life a dream, and make your dream a reality."

If France have grown into the tournament with each game, emboldened via baby steps, Griezmann has become its cover star almost overnight. In a tournament very much defined by the collective over individuals, it seems fitting its most peerless player appears to be so normal and likable. He's the kid next door who has made France fall in love with its football team again.

Even if his celebration is worthy of a custodial sentence.

Five goals in three knockout games (two each against Germany and the Republic of Ireland, one against Iceland) means Griezmann is surely now just one halfway decent game away from being crowned Euro 2016's outstanding player. France have never lost when he has scored. His double against Germany takes that record to eight wins and two draws whenever he has troubled the scoresheet.

A baby-faced national hero with the clean-cut good looks of a matinee idol, he carries with him a back story of sacrifice and struggle en route to the top to only add to the allure.

Upon repeatedly being rejected in his homeland over reservations about his diminutive stature—he's 5'7" tall—he moved to Spain at the age of 13 after Real Sociedad recognised a potential overlooked by dozens of French scouts. Lyon, Auxerre and AS Saint-Etienne all politely passed on his services. 

On a professional level, the one that got away will now define each and every one of those scouts. Just ask Dick Rowe. As an A&R man at Decca Records, he signed the Rolling Stones but is most famous for being the man who turned down the Beatles.

Atletico Madrid have shown no such lack of prescience. Before the tournament got under way, they tied Griezmann down to a new contract to secure the signing of the summer, replete with an increased buyout clause. If Pogba is worth £100 million, what price Griezmann?

He'll be worth a few quid more if he does to Portugal what he has done to Ireland, Iceland and Germany in France's last three matches.

   

France united amid an uncertain future

Sport and its relationship with the outside world, the important stuff as opposed to the escapism offered by 22 men chasing a ball in field, is all too often overstated. With Griezmann, it is hard to separate the two.

His elder sister Maud was a survivor of the Bataclan attacks in Paris last November. She managed to escape the Bataclan Theatre unharmed, but 89 people were killed.

On the same night, France were playing Germany across the city at the Stade de France, itself a target of terrorist attacks. Griezmann and his team-mates will return to the same venue on Sunday for an occasion that will almost certainly transcend the parameters of sport for those playing, in attendance and everyone else outside looking in. 

"Thank God my sister was able to get out of the Bataclan," he said of the attacks, per Aaron Flanagan of the Mirror. "All my prayers go to the victims and their families."

Barney Ronay in a piece for the Guardian wrote:

There is a tendency to find some rather glib simplifications in the spectacle of sport, to swallow the idea that these gaudy formalities can provide a lasting balm for the bruises of the real world.

[...]

The temptation will be to see some circular note of defiance, a borrowed significance in what is essentially a coincidence, one small part of a traumatic story tacked on to the simplicities of sport. Still, though, it is impossible not to be moved by the prospect.

While it is true sport can barely hold a mirror up to real life, let alone a bandage, there is a sense a win in Paris for the hosts would be as much a cathartic experience as it would a celebratory one. It won't provide answers to a country still coming to terms with the atrocities committed against it, nor will it ease political and social tensions amid a pervading sense of paranoia over serious security threats and discord over labour laws. 

It could, though, provide respite and unity, however temporary, for a nation still in a state of official emergency. The common cause of course being a France side that would prove both a popular and welcome winner. Not just in France.

"Just before the Romania match, the president came to talk to us about the security measures in and around the stadium and we were pretty calm," said Griezmann, per the Daily Telegraph's Paul Hayward. "It was our duty to win the matches to entertain the French people and go all the way. That's what we needed to do as the French national side."

The scale of military presence in France at the moment is in equal parts reassuring and frightening.

Given before the tournament the main focus around France's camp centred on a sex tape involving two of their players, and a row over alleged ethnic bias in terms of squad selection, Deschamps deserves real credit for creating a bond in his ranks that has never once been branded "mutinous" by "camp insiders."

"We made history tonight. We don't have the power to solve all the problems of the French people, but we can generate happiness and confidence. And that's important," said Deschamps after the Germany game, via ESPN's Gabriele Marcotti.

Eighteen years on from the 1998 World Cup win in Saint-Denis, it seems France are finally united again.

   

Can you ever rule out a team with Ronaldo in its ranks?

While Griezmann cut a disconsolate figure after the Champions League final, the world's most famous torso was laid bare for all to see. Ronaldo scored the decisive spot-kick in the penalty shootout to help Real Madrid to a second European Cup in three seasons.

On the night he was far from at his sharpest in Milan amid suggestions he was hampered by injury.

He hasn't looked quite right in France either, but it was Ronaldo's brilliantly taken brace that rescued Portugal against Hungary when a humiliating elimination at the group stage looked odds-on before his intervention. It was Ronaldo who set up Ricardo Quaresma for Portugal's winner against Croatia in the last 16; it was Ronaldo who scored one goal and set up the other for Nani against Wales in the semi-final.

Even when he’s not very good by his own standards, he's still better than most. A haul of three goals and as many assists isn't Diego Maradona in 1986, but it's not a bad return either. To think people (definitely not me) have been writing him off—idiots.

Where once a matador, he is now more bull. He has less interest in peacocking these days but rather a desire to hurt opponents as quickly and as brutally as possible. His route to goal follows the path of least resistance. The desire to bamboozle opponents to the point they lose all sense of spatial awareness to fall into a heap vowing never to return to their feet now lays dormant.

According to WhoScored.com, he has completed an average of just 0.5 dribbles per game over six matches and 600 minutes of football (the latter total being the most of any player at the finals, along with Portugal goalkeeper Rui Patricio). To put that figure into context, 125 players have completed more. Eden Hazard averaged 4.8 for Belgium.

For those of you worried he's lacking confidence after the dribbling stat, it's worth noting he has averaged 7.5 shots per game. That sounds about right for a serve-and-volley tennis player but obscene for a footballer. It is.

Only two players, Gareth Bale and Kevin De Bruyne, have averaged more than four at Euro 2016. Ronaldo has taken 47 shots in total: 12 on target, 17 off target, 17 blocked and one against the woodwork.

If the passing of time has stolen half a yard from his legs, it has given him an extra couple in the head. Ronaldo is as wily as an old dog sniffing for scraps under a baby's highchair these days. Against Wales, he hung off the ring-rusty James Collins at the far post all game waiting for his chance and will likely do the same against France’s inexperienced Samuel Umtiti on Sunday.

Happy to be the bully in the box, his team-mates look to find him at every opportunity. It's not sophisticated, but few gave Portugal anything more than a puncher's chance of making the tournament's final before it began. 

And when you have Ronaldo in your side, with the right service, that puncher's chance is akin to Mike Tyson's in his pomp. 

   

Will Umtiti’s remarkable week get even better?

While Jeremy Mathieu can barely look himself in the calf, for the rest of France it is a part of the Barcelona man's anatomy fast becoming a national treasure. For were it not for Mathieu's calves and their propensity to be pulled, Samuel Umtiti would not have emerged as a potential long-term solution to France's problem position at centre-half.

Mathieu's cloud appears to have proved a silver lining for both Umtiti and Deschamps.

Umtiti was called up as Mathieu's replacement just before the tournament commenced having not made France's original 23-man squad. If Umtiti expected to come along just for the ride, he was thrown in at the deep end when handed his senior debut in place of the suspended Adil Rami for the quarter-final tie with Iceland.

Positionally, he was arguably suspect for both goals France conceded, with Rio Ferdinand particularly scathing in his assessment of the 22-year-old's performance on the BBC. What Ferdinand cannot help but have admired, though, was Umtiti's composure and nigh-on immaculate distribution.

Deschamps had seen enough and opted against recalling Rami for the Germany game. Playing a prodigious young talent against Iceland is one thing, relying on him in a European Championship semi-final against the world champions something else entirely.

It proved a bold and brilliant call on Deschamps' part. Umtiti may not have had a traditional centre-forward to deal with, but he did have the world's most fluid midfield perpetually interchanging and playing triangles in front of him. Both he and his partner—the at-times impetuous Laurent Koscielny—for the most part kept their line impeccably. Whenever either got sucked out of position, the other filled in with a block, tackle, lunge, header or interception.

Arsene Wenger will have watched on at an exciting new partnership developing and wept at the £20 million deal Barcelona have agreed with Lyon for the centre-half who isn't Per Mertesacker.

Over the two matches, he has misplaced two of 94 passes and shown an ability to carry the ball out from the back; it's not hard to see why Barcelona have had him on their radar for some time. Sunday will be the first time he's faced Ronaldo; it's looking unlikely to be the last.

Having played the two biggest games of his career in five days, a third in a week to complete the hat-trick would be quite some feat.

   

Santos unapologetic about Portugal's style

Fernando Santos may not have the prettiest side, but they've proven hard to beat.
Fernando Santos may not have the prettiest side, but they've proven hard to beat.Thanassis Stavrakis/Associated Press/Associated Press

No coach in France has proved as pragmatic and resilient as Portugal's Fernando Santos.

He has played the hand he's been dealt without feeling a need to employ a poker face. Chided by many for his side's route to the final, which has seen Portugal win just one match in 90 minutes—against Wales in the semi-final—he has met criticism with a shrug, per Reuters' Brian Homewood (h/t the Daily Mail):

Portugal always have a game plan, an attacking game plan and a defensive game plan.

We know we aren't the best in the world, but we also know that it will be difficult for anyone to beat us.

We have been an excellent team on the pitch who are sometimes pleasant to watch and sometimes less pleasant to watch.

Portugal have done what we have to do, without worrying whether we have been pretty or ugly but instead worrying about whether we have been good or bad.

Wenger was wrong. It seems not everyone thinks they have the prettiest wife at home, after all. 

His record speaks for itself. In Santos' 13 competitive matches in charge since his appointment in September 2014, Portugal have won nine and drawn four. Remarkably, the Wales game was the first under his tenure in which his side has won by more than a one-goal margin. Essentially, he's the Portuguese version of Sam Allardyce.

Portugal's eight goals have come at a rate of 1.33 per game, with France the most prolific nation at the finals, scoring 13 goals at an average of 2.17 per game.

Santos hasn't got any decent strikers, so he hasn't bothered playing with any. Instead, he's utilised Ronaldo and Nani through the middle in a 4-4-2 formation and put the rest of his side behind the ball. It's not subtle, but it has worked. His front pair have scored six between them, while his blooding of Renato Sanches has proved the proverbial managerial masterstroke. His clash with Pogba in the centre of the pitch could be sensational. 

Santos' main selection dilemma concerns whether to recall William Carvalho after he served a suspension against Wales. His replacement, Danilo Pereira, was excellent in the semi-final, but Carvalho's athleticism and rangy physicality could give him the nod as Santos weighs up how to deal with Pogba and Blaise Matuidi's dynamism in France's engine room.

Pepe should return alongside Southampton's Jose Fonte, who has enjoyed a largely immaculate tournament, if he recovers from injury in time. 

While a pedestrian predilection for repeatedly moving the ball sidewards in midfield is somewhat cloying to anyone who isn't Louis van Gaal, a perceived dourness has probably been overstated. 

This is a Portugal side unlike those of the past. It's very much one in transition. As Marcotti noted for ESPN, the nucleus of Santos' squad is made up of players either past their peak (Bruno Alves, Pepe, Nani, Joao Moutinho, Ricardo Carvalho, Ronaldo), or yet to hit it (Joao Mario, Raphael Guerreiro, William Carvalho, Renato Sanches, Danilo, Andre Gomes). Precious few are in their prime years. That Santos has conjured a side so effective, however uninspiring, is quite the feat. 

It is also worth remembering Portugal has a population of just 10 million. France has one of 66 million. It's only because they so regularly overachieve that Portugal are never really regarded as underdogs. 

Portugal's record against France does not make pretty reading for Santos and his players, either. They have lost the previous 10 meetings between the two nations, with Portugal's last victory in the fixture coming back in 1975.

The two teams met at the semi-final stage of both Euro 2000 and the 2006 World Cup. A Zinedine Zidane penalty decided matters at the King Baudouin Stadium, Brussels, in 2000. Zidane again kept his nerve from the penalty spot six years later, as France did just enough to win through to the final against Italy. 

It was in the 1984 European Championship that France and Portugal played out their most memorable meeting, though. In a thoroughly engaging semi-final at the Stade Velodrome, Platini's winning goal a minute before the end of extra time saw France through to the final against Spain courtesy of a tumultuous 3-2 victory.

A game of similar eminence on Sunday would do nicely. 


All stats provided by WhoScored.com unless otherwise stated