This article originally appeared on VICE Sports UK.
Whatever happens now, France will always have Marseille. Their semi-final triumph over Germany, a minor epic of defensive resolve played out amid a fervent atmosphere in the most visually dramatic stadium in the country, gaining some measure of recompense for the World Cup semi-final defeats of 1982 and 1986, will live forever in the collective memory of French football. The question now is whether it is seen as a major staging post on the road to victory, or whether it stands as a magnificent glimpse of a glory that never quite arrives. Certainly Portugal will offer a very different sort of opponent in Sunday's final.
The pattern of the harder half of the draw is not unusual: a major nation beating another major nation and then falling against another major nation that is not so worn down, physically and emotionally. So, for instance, Italy beat Spain then lost to Germany, who went on to lose to France. "It's an excellent result and it's been a long time since we beat Germany, but it gives us nothing today," said the France manager Didier Deschamps. "There is now a title to play for against Portugal. Just because we are at home and beat Germany doesn't give us extra powers. They believe in themselves and we believe in ourselves, too."
The final will be a very different game for France. Against Germany, less by design than by the sheer force of the German assault, in the first half in particular, France were forced onto the back foot. It suited them, allowing Griezmann and Moussa Sissoko space to raid into on the break. Portugal will not come onto France in the same way, however. This will be more like the first four games of the tournament for Les Bleus, when they had to find a way of breaking down a massed rearguard.
The question for Deschamps is whether he sticks to the more attacking 4-2-3-1 that might threaten Portugal's full-backs while giving William Carvalho (assuming he returns after suspension) a direct opponent to deal with, or whether he brings back N'Golo Kante in a 4-3-3 that would ensure France aren't overwhelmed in the centre of midfield. Portugal can be expected to be as uncompromising as ever.
"In a final," Portugal boss Fernando Santos said, "the performance is not important. All that matters is winning." That's as opposed to the group stage, presumably, when for Portugal it seemed that the performance was not important and all that mattered was drawing. Italy won the first 24-team World Cup having drawn all three group games and Portugal could do the same in the first 24-team Euros. But whereas Italy went on to beat Argentina and Brazil in classic second-phase group games, before seeing off a good Poland in the semi-final, Portugal have ground their way through knockout games against Croatia, Poland and Wales. The truth is that Portugal have been prioritising winning over the performance all tournament.
Their players have spent the past few days irritatedly rejecting comparisons with the Greece of 2004, but that – the potential of Ronaldo aside – is precisely what they are: a well-organised, hard-working side looking to upset the hosts in the final. In Santos they even appointed the coach who had succeeded Otto Rehhagel, Greece's Euro-winning manager, and maintained his philosophy.
Portugal's progress has been Santos' triumph. They had looked defensively suspect in the group stage even before leaking three against Hungary. But he took the decision to leave out Ricardo Carvalho, bringing in Jose Fonte, and has rejigged the midfield so successfully that Portugal have conceded only once in 300 minutes since the group stage. William Carvalho will probably return at the back of midfield to replace Danilo Pereira but it's the operation of the unit with Adrien Silva, Joao Mario and Renato Sanchez that makes them so effective. All four are 24 or under, all are quick and industrious and all are prepared to make a tackle. It may be Cristiano Ronaldo who took the headlines after the semi-final, but it's been the midfield that has taken Portugal to the grand finale.
Ronaldo, pursuing the personal redemption he promised himself as he wept on the pitch at the end of the 2004 final, occupies an odd position in this Portugal side, in the limelight and yet peripheral. He has scored three goals with fine finishes – two of them thumping headers – and has inadvertently set up two others – with a saved shot that Ricardo Quaresma followed in against Croatia and with a mishit shot that Nani diverted goalwards against Wales. In that sense, he has fulfilled his remit: eight outfielders keep it tight and he and Nani try to find a goal. But this, whatever the PR men and the marketers may claim, has not been his tournament. Or not yet, at least – a defining performance in the final could yet change that perception.
If Ronaldo is to shine, though, it will be because of the midfield platform Santos has constructed for him. Santos has achieved the remarkable feat of taking a one-man team and making the team the more important aspect. For all that the spotlight will continue to focus on Ronaldo, if France are to win the key task is to penetrate the midfield base.