Group F of the European Championship, branded at the start as the ‘group of death’, provided plenty of excitement on its final evening. Those supporting Portugal, Germany and Hungary experienced a proper roller coaster ride over the 90+ minutes as Germany hosted Hungary in Munich and Portugal faced France in Budapest. Throughout the course of the game the group table changed many times, with each team except France hanging off the cliff at least once. In the end, both contests ended winnerless and Hungary, who entered the round from the bottom, returned there and have been eliminated.
Facing the defending European champions, as well as the World Cup winners of 2018 and 2014, Hungary held out for 84 minutes before falling apart against Portugal, and managed to avoid defeat against both France and Germany. Marco Rossi and his players leave the competition with their heads held high, as the rest of the group turn their focus to the next stage.
The Lahoz show
Three out of the four goals scored in this match came from the spot. Referee Antonio Mateu Lahoz is known as one of the quicker officials to give penalties, and he lived up to his reputation on this occasion completely.
Minute 27 was passing when Joao Moutinho, who replaced Bruno Fernandes in Portugal’s starting XI for this game, whipped a free-kick deep into the box. Hugo Lloris came for it but Danilo got there first, and the France goalkeeper ended up whacking the head of the Portugal midfielder hard. Lahoz had no second thought as he blew the whistle, pointed to the spot and produced a yellow card for Lloris. Up stepped Cristiano Ronaldo and that was it.
Looking at the incident, Lloris had clearly gone for the ball and had no intention of hitting the opposition player, but he did arrive late and Danilo was probably lucky to have been able to continue playing. He needed medical assistance as well as an ice-pack against the side of his head. Lahoz’s decision in this situation was the right one.
However, the penalty the 44-year-old Spaniard awarded France in the 42nd minute caused a lot of talk. Kylian Mbappe was on his way, trying to get past Nelson Semedo and break into the box. The Wolves fullback blocked him off and gave him a slight push, at which Mbappe went down and Lahoz pointed to the spot again.
Many believe this call to have been a wrong one. The contact appeared to have been minimal and Mbappe could’ve probably stayed on his feet had he wanted to, but the fact remains that the contact existed and that it came about half a foot inside the box. It could, for argument’s sake, be filed as a ‘grey zone’ moment, a moment when some referees blow the whistle and others don’t, and those behind the VAR usually refuse to change the original call. Be that as it may, it was Karim Benzema’s turn to put the ball on the spot and score.
The Real Madrid striker then went on to score the only goal of the match from open play, capitalizing on a fabulous pass by Paul Pogba and avoiding the offside trap to squeeze the ball past Rui Patricio with inch-precision, and even that caused a bit of confusion. The goal was initially overruled by the linesman’s flag, but VAR intervened in this matter and France took the lead.
The third penalty was a far more straightforward one. Ronaldo had broken down the left in the 58th minute and his second-attempt cross was clearly blocked by the raised hand of Jules Kounde, well inside the box. A number of France players protested, but there was simply no way that decision was going to be overturned.
Ronaldo stepped up again to score his 109th international goal, equaling the record held so far by Iran’s Ali Daei.
There was another moment of controversy late on, however, which could have arguably led to a fourth penalty of the game. It came one minute into the stoppage time as Kinsley Coman got past Fernandes down the left and was caught heavily on the back of the ankle on the very edge of the box. Lahoz waved the appeal away and VAR remained silent. One can only suppose that they judged the foul to have happened outside the area with not enough force to warrant a straight red, in which case they would obviously have no authority to change the original call. Fernandes definitely got away with nasty one there.
A balanced contest
The contest between the world and the European champions was a fairly equal one. Stats tell us that France had a little more of the ball (53%), took one shot more (11), completed 592 passes with a 93% accuracy (Portugal had 541, 90%). But even those numbers show the game was close, never mind the final scoreline.
The tide shifted occasionally as the ball moved from one half of the pitch to the other, and the battle in the middle seemed a most interesting one.
The two players that caught the eye in that area were arguably Paul Pogba for France and Renato Sanches for Portugal.
It has been said before, but Pogba really seems a different player when he plays for his national side, compared to his role at Manchester United. He’s an excellent, all-round midfielder, who thrives when given the responsibility of the main creator in the team. He showed that clearly by setting up Benzema’s second goal, as well as with several more passes through the lines which caused concern for the Portuguese defence. At United, that role is mostly performed by Bruno Fernandes, and Pogba tends to go pale as his influence diminishes.
Sanches, on the other hand, showed great promise early in his career. However, it seems his move from Benfica to Bayern Munich came too early in his career – he was only 18. Injuries and disciplinary issues hampered his progress at the Allianz Arena, as well as at Swansea where he spent 2017-18 on loan. In 2019, he joined Lille on a permanent basis and he now seems to have rediscovered his abilities, helping the team win the Ligue 1 title last season. He has been the main driving force in the middle of the park for Portugal whenever he was on the pitch at the Euros, with the France game being no exception. Still only 23, it’s quite obvious there’s a lot more to come from this player.
The tasks ahead
France are now poised to take on Switzerland in the round of 16, and the two sides will meet at the National Arena in Bucharest on Monday. They are obviously considered the favourites to go through, but the Swiss aren’t very likely to go out without putting up a proper fight. It may prove to be a more interesting contest than many believe at the moment.
Meanwhile, Portugal are in for a tough ride against Belgium at the Estadio la Cartuja in Seville
on Sunday. There isn’t much need to discuss the quality of players like Manchester City midfielder Kevin De Bruyne and Inter Milan striker Romelu Lukaku, of course, but there’s more to Roberto Martinez’s team, sitting top of the FIFA rankings, than just those two players. Along with the one between England and Germany, this contest seems the most evenly matched in the upcoming round.