The final matchday of the Euro's group stages closed with a nail-biting finish to the "Group of Death," as the results of both Group F games had Germany and Portugal on the verge of early elimination from the tournament.
The encounter between Portugal and France occurred in a fully packed Puskas Arena in Budapest, a strange sight after many months of COVID restrictions. Despite the 2-2 scoreline implying an eventful match, both teams generated very little from open play, with three goals resulting from penalties converted by Ronaldo and Benzema.
After their previous group stage games, both teams came into this game wanting to make some changes. While Portugal had nominally played with a 4-3-3 in the previous two games, in practice, their shape looked more like a 4-2-4 since Bruno Fernandes is a midfielder in name only and plays more like a forward. Against France, manager Fernando Santos decided to bench Bruno and holding midfielder William Carvalho, playing João Moutinho and Renato Sanches instead. This turned Portugal's structure into a true 4-3-3 and improved their possession play compared to previous games.
On the other side, Deschamps finally ditched his previous 4-3-3 experiment and went back to his preferred 4-2-3-1 lineup and system used in the 2018 World Cup. Mirroring what Blaise Matuidi did back in 2018, Corentin Tolisso played a very conservative right-winger role. Meanwhile, center-back Jules Koundé replaced Benjamin Pavard at the right-back position. These changes severely affected France's ability to create danger on the right side, with Koundé looking surprisingly sloppy on the ball throughout the evening and Tolisso providing little progressive passing and aggressive movement.
France generated little on the offense with their right side deactivated, with only the occasional combination of Mbappé, Griezmann, and Benzema on the left side leading to some danger. Their best chances and goals in this game resulted from Paul Pogba's heroic passing from deep positions. In the first half, his passes to Mbappé led to a massive Rui Patrício save and, as the half came to a close, a foul in the box from Nelson Semedo. This action was punished by a penalty kick that Benzema converted.
While Portugal had more possession and shots throughout the first half, they struggled to create great chances and relied mostly on crosses into the box and set pieces. One of these set pieces led to an exceedingly harsh clearance from French goalie Lloris that was punished with a penalty kick converted by Ronaldo.
After drawing in the first half, both Portugal and France felt the need to score another goal and secure their positions in the group, making offensive substitutions for the second half. Santos replaced defensive midfielder Danilo Pereira with the more creative João Palhinha, while Deschamps replaced Lucas Hernández—more center back than fullback—with the more creative left-back Lucas Digne. Digne lasted only seven minutes on the pitch, as an injury forced him to leave the game and be replaced by Adrien Rabiot.
Things got spicy right at the start of the second half, with yet another stunning Pogba pass from deep finding Benzema and leading to France's second goal. The Real Madrid striker outsmarted Ruben Días and Pepe, making the run into space before either defender could react.
Despite the substitutions, Portugal did not change their strategy, hoping that Ronaldo could beat French defenders in the box and get on the end of a cross. Their second goal came in the 60th minute from a naive Koundé handball and yet another penalty kick converted by Ronaldo.
Since the scoreline of Germany vs. Hungary was still up in the air, Santos and Portugal wanted yet another goal. They made more offensive substitutions in the last twenty minutes —Bruno Fernandes, Diogo Dalot, Ruben Neves—but the Portuguese offense did not really improve.
The 2-2 draw coupled with Germany's result meant that Group F had the most expected ending—Germany, Portugal, and France all qualified—but in a rather unexpected way.
While Benzema's goals got him the "Man of the Match" award, we should point out that in this game—and throughout the group stages—he had surprisingly little impact on how France attacked. Pogba and Mbappé have been the most impactful players in France's offense, and Benzema is still figuring out how to synergize with them to break down defenses and create chances. Going against the usual Benzema narrative, he had greater impact shooting and finishing attacks throughout the group stages than in link-up and possession sequences.
Meanwhile, Rafa Varane had a busy night defending Ronaldo in the box and clearing Portuguese crosses. Fortunately for him and France, Portugal's predictable offense mitigated a lot of Ronaldo's potential threat. The Portuguese offense only varied whenever Ronaldo moved out of the box and combined with his teammates.
Overall, this game featured more fun and goals than what the offenses of both sides deserved. Portugal and France still struggle to attack as true collective units and rely heavily on the talent of their stars to carry them through. We shall see how much these issues will affect them in the knockout stages.
Having qualified as the third place of Group F, this Sunday Portugal will face a dangerous Belgium attack in the round of 16, led by Kevin de Bruyne and Romelu Lukaku. France has, on paper, an easier matchup against Switzerland next Monday, but the Swiss will be a hard side to break down.