Euro 2020’s ‘Group of Death’ concludes on Wednesday when reigning European champions Portugal take on world champions France at a capacity Ferenc Puskas Stadium (8pm kick-off, UK time).
The current European holders have had a mixed start to the multi-host tournament, thrashing Hungary in their curtain-raiser, with all three goals coming in the dying embers, before getting picked apart by Germany in a six-goal thriller, in which the 2014 World Cup winners ran amok in a 4-2 win.
France, likewise, have had contrasting fortunes. They beat Germany 1-0 comfortably at the Allianz Arena, with VAR chalking off two goals, before enduring a frustrating 1-1 stalemate with Hungary in Budapest, which has just added an extra layer of intrigue to Group F.
On Wednesday, all will be decided. Anything other than a win for Portugal would see Didier Deschamps’ men finish above them, so it’s certainly all to play for.
With that, how is the match shaping up? We’ve put together some predictions, possible line-ups and the permutations for what will be an epic evening of European action.
Portugal vs France odds with William Hill
- Portugal: 13/5
- Draw: 2/1
- France: 13/10
1. How Portugal could line up
Before Portugal’s encounter with Germany, head coach Fernando Santos stressed that his side “have to have the ball”. Although succinct, Santos was under no illusions about the capabilities of Germany when you allow the likes of Toni Kroos and Ilkay Gundogan control the pace of the game, as evidenced on Saturday afternoon.
Santos’ pre-match apprehensions, therefore, almost set the stage perfectly for Wolves’ elegant tempo-setter Joao Moutinho, a player who, in every respect, is designed to retain the ball, recycle possession and keep the rhythm fluid, which made his absence all the more questionable.
Santos went with the side that largely flattered to deceive against Hungary before Cristiano Ronaldo exploded to life in the final 10 minutes. He retained the double midfield pivot of William Carvalho and Danilo Pereira, but the duo struggled to get a foothold on proceedings as Germany enjoyed the lion’s share of possession.
Moutinho did enter the fray in the 64th minute and Portugal scored their second goal three minutes later through Diogo Jota. That 26-minute cameo may, therefore, have been enough to convince Santos of including him in his starting XI for the France game.
On paper, the rest of the squad essentially picks itself, other than the key question of central midfield. Rui Patricio will retain his place, while Nelson Semedo continues to deputise in Joao Cancelo’s absence, with Pepe and Ruben Dias holding the fort at centre-back.
Ronaldo is undroppable, Jota’s stock continues to skyrocket and Bruno Fernandes, although vastly underwhelming so far, perhaps needs the midfield fluidity of Moutinho to start pulling strings. Meanwhile Bernardo Silva may make way for Renato Sanches.
2. How France could line up
If France’s opener versus Germany was a perfectly executed gameplan that utilised the counter-attacking strengths of Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann, with the elite ball-linking capacities of Karim Benzema, then their deadlock with Hungary demonstrated the nation’s limitations.
Against Germany they had just 38% possession, and yet, they looked like scoring on every attack, penetrating the open spaces left by Joachim Low’s ever-willing, overlapping full-backs, while VAR intervened to overturn two goals by marginal offside decisions. It could have been a rout were it not for technology.
By contrast, they had 67% possession against Hungary and walked away with just a point, as the Magyars packed their own box and made things very claustrophobic for France going forward, so Deschamps now has a few questions to answer.
The only change he made for the Hungary encounter was selecting Lucas Digne ahead of Lucas Hernandez, and that may be the only change he makes for the game versus Portugal, staying true to the side that kept a clean sheet against Germany and created openings to breach Manuel Neuer.
3. Ronaldo to break another duck
Incredibly, Ronaldo entered Euro 2020 having not scored against two of the nations in his group: Germany and France. He had already netted four previously against Hungary, including a brace in the 3-3 draw in Euro 2016, before firing another two past the nation in Portugal’s opener.
As for the 2014 World Cup winners and 2018 World Cup winners, Ronaldo had thus far fired a blank in the previous four and six games respectively against the former and latter. That changed on Saturday as Ronaldo struck past Germany, and you would not put it past him to break his drought against France now.
In fact, Les Bleus are the opponent against whom Ronaldo has played most often without ever finding the back of the net in international football (six games, 439 minutes). There are not many clubs, nations or goalkeepers who do not eventually feel the wrath of Portugal’s ageless forward.
Ronaldo enters this contest as the competition’s top scorer so far with three goals and should feel confident of adding another scalp to his unprecedented collection. He has now scored 19 goals at the World Cup and European Championships combined; no European player has ever scored more across the two competitions (level with Miroslav Klose), and he could move ahead as the undisputed No. 1 on Wednesday.
Cristiano Ronaldo anytime goalscorer is priced at 5/4 with William Hill.
4. A cagey affair
Criticism was unjustly levelled at Deschamps after the Germany game, with his side registering just one shot on target and willingly conceding possession as they set up a low block and looked to counter with quick, concise attacks, utilising the breakneck speed of Mbappe and the world-class hold-up play of Benzema.
There is, of course, a clamour from neutrals for France to play the kind of expansive, expressive football that has dominated club level in recent years, but the pragmatic approach of Deschamps has ruled the international roost in a results-driven industry, so why would he change his tactics?
With Portugal offering the kind of attacking quality in Fernandes, Ronaldo and Co, Deschamps will, of course, set up to frustrate. N’Golo Kante will stick to Fernandes like chewing gum on a shoe, while Adrien Rabiot and Paul Pogba will close down opposing players with relish.
And that could suit Portugal. Santos himself won Euro 2016 following a similar blueprint to Deschamps’ World Cup-winning formula. A Selecao drew all three of their group games before keeping thee clean sheets in the knockouts, including the final, and scoring more than once in only one of those games.
Having conceded four last time out to Germany, Santos will be wary of being exposed in a similar fashion, so expect a more subdued occasion, with both sides probing and patiently trying to work each other out: Santos tapping into his Euro 2016 formula, and Deschamps sticking to his ‘tried and tested’.
Portugal 1-1 France is priced at 9/2 with William Hill.
5. Karim Benzema to silence critics
Although Karim Benzema has netted 20+ league goals in each of the past three seasons, the French attacker is known more for his selfless centre-forward exploits than hitting the back of the net on a regular basis. “Karim Benzema is such a team player . . . Cristiano Ronaldo loved him at Real Madrid,” Jose Mourinho wrote in his column for The Times earlier this month. “He’s probably the only No. 9 I know that is not selfish in his game.”
Despite this, there have been some concerns that Benzema is yet to open his account this tournament in his two games. Deschamps recently played down those fears and outlined his complete faith in the Real Madrid striker after firing another blank against Hungary.
“He has done very good things, but he has lacked a goal. He knows people want him to score, but he knows it’s just about that,” Deschamps said.
“He is a striker that needs to score but the essential thing is that he has confidence and that he knows he has mine.”
Attacking teammate Griezmann also chimed in with his own assertion, saying that once “he does score, the water will start flowing.”
He said: “As soon as Karim gets one in the net, that will help him. We just need to be patient and remain confident.
“We all support him and have confidence in him, the staff and players alike want him to be in the best position possible.
“We hope his goal comes quickly but we have to be patient. He’s had some great opportunities so I’m sure he will be scoring soon.
“He has had some opportunities so the goal will come.”
In what will likely be a game of fine margins, Benzema, being a player who regularly turns up for the big occasions at club level, could be the man to fire France to the knockouts, while simultaneously silencing those that have doubted his early influence so far.
Karim Benzema anytime goalscorer is priced at 7/4 with William Hill.