When hosts France will take on Portugal on Sunday in the Euro 2016 final, they will start as an overwhelming favourite. France have won their last ten matches against Portugal, there is a clear psychological advantage, but most importantly Les Blues are playing as a unit and are bubbling with confidence.
That confidence was clearly missing when France kicked off the competition against Romania. They gave the impression of a disjointed force and it needed a moment of sublime quality from Dimitri Payet in the dying minutes of the game to pick up a victory.
The balance in the squad was missing. Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, who of Didier Deschamps’s key players failed to assert their dominance. Deschamps left the duo out in France’s next game against Albania. They won 2-0 but the same problem persisted.
In the Round of 16, Ireland took an early lead against France. It was evident from their approach that France were indeed trying hard to get back into the game but somehow that the flair was missing from their game. Even against 10-men, they struggled to break the opposition defence. Then, one substitution changed everything. N’Golo Kante, the defensive midfielder, was replaced by Kingsley Coman. France changed their system from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1. Kante picked up a booking that would rule him out for the next game while a more attacking approach was needed; the decision made sense.
Griezmann, who struggled thus far was shifted to a more central role behind Olivier Giroud; Paul Pogba took the anchoring role in midfield and Payet moved towards the left with a freedom to drift more towards the centre. Within the next few minutes, France went 2-1 up. Griezmann netting twice.
In the quarter-final against Iceland, Deschamps started with the same setup and went 4-0 up at half time. Iceland had no answer to the ruthless attacking trio of Griezmann-Payet and Giroud.
Against Germany, Griezmann scored twice as France won 2-0 to book a place in the final. But, they rode their luck during the game. Germany were arguably the better team of the two and completely dominated the midfield. At times in the first half, one felt like Deschamps must bring on Kante in the middle as the midfield was completely overrun.
In the Euro final, Deschamps will have to take this key decision – whether to bring Kante in the midfield or to stick with the winning combination? Given how the tournament has panned out, it is safe to assume that the midfield duo of Pogba and Matuidi can handle the pressure against the Portuguese midfield setup.
Deschamps must start with the same starting XI and bring Kante on if and when necessary. Samuel Umtiti and Laurent Koscielny have been rock solid at the back and France’s best chances of winning the game is by going on the attack right from the first whistle.