Saturday, July 08, 2006

Frogs Final bound!

France 1-0 Portugal.

Not as good a game as the previous semi but still a fascinating affair. And for me personally, after seeing some disappointing results at earlier stages in the knock-out round at least the semi's delivered the finalists I hoped for. Ronaldo in tears, and Zizou through to the final...excellent!

Portugal enjoyed a feast of possession, a whopping 57% or so, and they continually moved forward looking for goals. These attacks, whilst frequent, rarely looked like being rewarded with a goal. They were thwarted by an immense Lilian Thuram, and their particular formation which never quite worked as it should - the usual genius of Scolari for once made decisions during the match which at the time were questionable, and ultimately proved wrong!

The first chance came almost immediately, Malouda reacted to Gallas' ball over the top screwing his shot wide. Suddenly Portugal were looking for the opening goal. Ronaldo, as he did throughout the match, played exciting football, continually looking like the person most likely to bring about a Portugal breakthrough. After mazy dribbles he set up Deco and Maniche in turn who fired in long distance shots, saved and whistling over consecutively. Abidal then provided a low cross which Henry was agonisingly close to getting his feet to but it was Portugal who seemed the brighter in the early stages as they showed lovely interplay in and around the box while never quite having the shots to match despite Figo having one decent effort saved.

The only goal of the game came on 33 minutes. Twisting and turning inside the penalty area Carvalho's trailing leg caught Henry causing him to fall over, the ref having no hesitation in pointing to the spot. It was a slightly controversial penalty although I believe it was merited. If you catch someone in the box, preventing him having a shot at goal, a penalty should surely ensue. Zidane showed England how to get past Ricardo. As usual he dived the right way, fully outstretched, but Zidane had fired it in with such power and precision despite only using a two step lead in to the shot, that the ball nestled beautifully in the goal. The rest of the half saw only one chance of note as a central Ronaldo run ended in a shot deflected wide by Thuram.

The second half was all about France keeping the Portugese at bay, however it was they who had an excellent chance only a few minutes in as Henry from just inside the penalty area on the left hand side, fired in a shot which Ricardo stopped with his wrist, the ball somehow spinning wide and out to safety. Ribery very soon after forcing him into another save with a good shot from distance.

The second half was generally scrappy and Portugal never looked like they were going to equalise. Scolari withdrew Pauleta for Simao. It was a strange decision to take off a player who had scored 47 times for his country, right up there with the great Eusebio. But Scolari was adamant to keep with 1 man up front with the creative geniuses behind him. He shoved Ronaldo into the centre-forward position. Why he did this when Ronaldo is unaccustomed to this position and was looking so good on the wing I don't know. Pauleta had had a frustrating evening, his service had been poor as balls had flown over his head, and no-one had really been feeding him into great positions. He'd had one half chance hit the side netting after forging past Thuram in the box. Portugal don't play Pauleta in the typical lone striker role, no-one would hit the ball long to him for him to provide head downs and flicks like they would with a Crouch - that's not his kind of game. Ultimately I believe Pauleta was let down by the system. Scolari obviously believed the system was more important than the personnel. A refreshing attitude perhaps, but the man whose never afraid to make the big calls couldn't engineer his substitutions to his advantage. Even Postiga, with the reputation as Portugese supersub couldn't conjure much.

There was one final nervy moment, and this was provided by Barthez who ballooned a volleyball slap into the air when catching the ball seemed simple. Figo with the goal at his mercy headed over, and the French were not left to rue the idiosyncracies of Barthez. Instead Zidane was left celebrating the fact that he would finish his professional career in the most important match anyone can ever play in, and that only comes round every 4 years. Cafu has featured in 3, this will be Zidane's second. Portugal will have to raise their spirits for the 3rd 4th playoff!

Thuram was my man of the match. Zidane did quite well but nowhere near the sublime standards he set in the quarter final, and Ronaldo was Portugal's best.

And one final note I reserve to Ronaldo. He had a fantastic game, perhaps inspired by the boos of the crowd every time he touched the ball. But again he provided a very controversial moment. Under a vague challenge from Sagnol in the area, he theatrically dived to try and win a penalty, one of the most blatant dives you'll ever see, no wonder he isn't endearing himself to anyone!

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