Tuesday 12 December 2017

Daniel McDonnell: Sharper mind of Santos inspires Portuguese to their finest hour

Winning boss took control of destiny while Deschamps waited for it

Portugal head coach Fernando Santos. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach
Portugal head coach Fernando Santos. Photo: Kai Pfaffenbach
Daniel McDonnell

Daniel McDonnell

The first-half Cristiano Ronaldo tears threatened to make the Euro 2016 final a footballing version of Hamlet without the Prince. Instead, it became a tale of France missing the character to capitalise on the fortune that helped them along the way to their date with destiny.

Prince Ronaldo ended up with the trophy.

The winners always write the history.

In Portugal, the tale of their unattractive route to glory will be defined as an evidence of their spirit and bravery, a point emphasised by the fact they spent most of the final hanging in there against the hosts while deprived of their best player.

They might only have won one game inside 90 minutes throughout the entire competition, but they didn't lose any either and, in tournament football, that doggedness is what turns nearly men into champions.

When it mattered, they held their nerve. And, for that, they deserve this success.

France fluffed their lines on their biggest day, incapable of pressing home their advantage in a tournament where pretty much everything was stacked in their favour.

The lucky general, Didier Deschamps, ended up losing out to a significantly better one in the shape of Fernando Santos.

The 61-year-old is not your average football manager. He completed a degree in electrical and telecommunications engineering towards the end of his playing career and gained a job as the director of technical services in a prestigious hotel in Estoril, a role he kept on during his early days in management.

Read More: Portugal rise above Ronaldo injury to ruin French party

It was only when Porto offered him their job in 1998 that he went full-time. His problem solving abilities have carried the unlikely winners through this competition.

With Ronaldo effectively out of the game from the eighth minute, hobbling on through the tears until his body finally gave in, a weaker side would have folded. But Portugal, aided by the best centre half pairing in the tournament - Pepe and Jose Fonte - refused to bend.

Towards the end of regulation time, Santos made the decision to take off Portugal's next star, Renato Sanches, and send in Eder - a 28-year-old known in Swansea as a waste of money who failed to score a single goal this season before getting shipped off to Lille.

His judgement was vindicated. Eder has scored goals in places other than the Premier League and, as part of a team that ended the side with Nani wearing the armband, he defied all predictions.

The decisive strike from his right boot was in keeping with the theme of extra-time; France retreated as they lost their way, with defence and midfield incapable of taking responsibility as the lanky striker found the space to unleash a right-footer that exposed the poor positioning of Hugo Lloris.

From the top down, France lacked direction in a competition which took home advantage to new levels.

Deschamps' charges were seeded in Pool A with a route that ensured they wouldn't face another group winner until the semi finals provided they topped a pool containing Albania, Romania and Switzerland. Position A1 in the draw really was A1 Sharon.

The run of seven-day breaks between knock-out matches only ended with the semi-final against Germany, a match they would have lost if the world champions had taken their chances. Any disadvantage created by the short turnaround for the final was quickly cancelled out by the opponent losing their talisman.

Read More: Unsatisfactory end to Cristiano's coup de grace

Bonne chance. And they still couldn't get the job done.

Over the weekend, a French journalist explained that a pivotal moment in France's progress came from a timely expression of dissatisfaction at Deschamps' preferred tactics.

Halfway through the round of 16 tie with Ireland, Antoine Griezmann was unhappy with his peripheral role on the right flank. He was encouraged by team-mates to raise his voice in the dressing-room and make the point to Deschamps that he would prefer to operate centrally next to Olivier Giroud.

The manager took the advice on board and agreed to give it a try. The rest, as they say, is history. For Ireland anyway.

With the wrong outcome, that could have been spun into an example of player unrest, a revolt that demonstrated that the players were perplexed by their manager's persistence with the wrong tactical approach.

But when it worked, the incident was reported as evidence of Deschamps' maturity as a coach, a willingness to listen to feedback rather than stubbornly sticking with his preferred plan. There was no pride before the fall.

As this scrap trickled towards the inevitability of a 120 minute bout, the coach was left to his own devices.

Read More: Far from vintage football but dreams became reality

He sent on Kingsley Coman for Dimitri Payet - a player who was out of favour until March - and then went like-for-like by replacing the lumbering Olivier Giroud with Andre-Pierre Gignac. In Deschamps' world, the big man is mandatory. Portugal enjoyed that.

The Mexican-based target man was consistently preferred to Anthony Martial, with the Manchester United youngster given only a late cameo.

Gignac could have been the hero before the end of regulation play with a scuffed shot that hit the post and trickled along the line.

Deschamps could have retired on the spot with that script; this failure might retire him from this job anyway. The post-mortem will be unkind.

Portugal can shape the story now. In 2004, they were the miserable hosts mugged by Greece and carried the pain with them across the next decade before appointing a manager who had just spent three terms in charge of Greece.

His organisation is difficult on the eye, but easy to justify now. They had their Sliding Doors moment too, the breakaway from a missed Croatia chance to nab a winner after an ugly round of 16 tie.

They did so after a three day turnaround, the kind of injustice that frustrated Martin O'Neill when Ireland ran out of steam. Portugal dug in and did it the hard way.

Like the moths that infested the stadium, they irritated en route to the spotlight. Santos took control of destiny while Deschamps waited for it.

Irish Independent

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