A mostly Ronaldo-less Portugal, a team that won just one of its seven games in France during regulation, won the European Championship with a 1-0 extra-time win over the hosts on Sunday, thanks to a late, long strike from Eder.
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In spite of Cristiano Ronaldo leaving the field early in the first half with a knee injury, Portugal upset the heavily favored French by doing what it had all tournament: defend stoutly and hang on for a liberating goal. That’s how a team that tied all three of its group stage games and only advanced thanks to the new and more forgiving format in the expanded 24-team field wound up champions of Europe – the country’s first major soccer title.
“We said we would win it for him,” Portugal defender Pepe said of Ronaldo. “And we managed to win it for him.”
After a vicious surprise attack on the field by thousands of moths, the game made a manic start. Well, the French did. They pressed the Portuguese so high and so hard that they forced mistakes from their very first possession. Every last ball seemed to fall for France then. A crumbling Portugal couldn’t even hold possession for more than a pass or two. That meant it had to chase the game while the French could conserve energy to press their opponents some more when they lost the ball, pursuing them like rabid dogs. It seemed like the Portuguese were stuck in a vicious cycle and had no choice but to surrender an enormous amount of France possession in their own third.
#FRA are on top…
— BBC Sport (@BBCSport) July 10, 2016
But only one real chance emerged from all this, and on a counter at that. Dimitri Payet served another sharp cross to Antoine Griezmann, whose small stature once again didn’t stop him from hitting a well-placed header, forcing Rui Patricio into an acrobatic save.
— Patrick (@RatedRHero) July 10, 2016
Counterintuitively, the game would tilt when Cristiano Ronaldo left it. He’d been collided into by Payet in the eighth minute, when the latter smashed into the four-time world player of the year’s planted left leg.
By the 17th minute, Ronaldo sat down and asked for a substitution. He was in tears, understanding that his second Euro final, a dozen years on from the first, was probably over. He cried then, too, back in 2004 when he was only 19, after Portugal was upset 1-0 by Greece on its home soil.
— Saif (@isaifpatel) July 10, 2016
Ronaldo, now 31, lumbered on for six more minutes, but then he sat down again and was stretchered off after handing the captain’s armband to Nani.
— OptaJoe (@OptaJoe) July 10, 2016
The interruptions snapped France’s trance and Portugal reorganized, finding a little more time and room on the ball and playing out of the stifling pressure. Moussa Sissoko, however, kept monstering Portugal up his right wing, or sometimes drifting into the middle. After half an hour, Payet got away on the left again. He laid off for a central Sissoko, who spun away from his man and lashed a shot right at Patricio.
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France would not convert its first-half dominance into a goal.
The French would come to regret that because Portugal managed to slow and squelch the game in the second act, which became something of a stalemate. France abandoned the urgency that had served it so well in the first half, instead opting for more methodical attacks. But Portugal had no issue dealing with those, given the amount of manpower it had parked centrally.
Only a few times did the French find a crack to slither through. In the 66th minute, Kingsley Coman whipped in a good cross to the far post, where Griezmann nodded it just over. Olivier Giroud had a look as well, but he, like Sissoko and his rocket shot from distance later on, were denied by the excellent Patricio yet again.
At the other end, only Nani’s quasi-shot threatened France goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who wasn’t fooled by that effort or Ricardo Quaresma’s bicycle kick on the rebound, which zipped straight at him.
In injury time of regulation, substitute André-Pierre Gignac, of Mexican league fame, turned Pepe inside-out and nearly won it for France, but he agonizingly pinged his wide-open finish off the inside of the near post.
— UEFA EURO 2016 (@EURO2016) July 10, 2016
And so to extra time it went, for the fifth time in the knockout stages of this Euro. Portugal, sensing its opportunity, began venturing forwards. Substitute striker Eder’s header was saved off the line by Lloris. Then Raphael smashed a free kick off the bar.
In the 109th minute, Eder was granted too much room to shoot in a quick transition outside the box. He let loose and snuck a bouncer past Lloris.
— Howler Magazine (@whatahowler) July 10, 2016
Eder revealed afterward that he got encouragement from Ronaldo. “He told me I was going to score the winning goal,” Eder said.
In the celebratory huddle, Ronaldo, practically coaching the team himself from the sideline late on in the game, broke into tears again. This time around, he’d be on the winning end of Europe’s championship game.
"Look at his face! Just look at his face!" pic.twitter.com/4ZrMPrRCOJ
— JOE.co.uk (@JOE_co_uk) July 10, 2016
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a soccer columnist for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter @LeanderAlphabet.