How did Portugal win Euro 2016 without Cristiano Ronaldo?

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Ronaldo carried his teammates to the final and they returned the favor

Cristiano Ronaldo had to watch most of the Euro 2016 final from the sideline, but it didn’t matter to a Portugal side that was perfectly set up to grind out a hard-earned victory even without their star man. Ronaldo came up big for his country time and time again on the way to the final, at times even looking like a one-man team, but if any team could pull off such an improbable victory after losing their talisman, it was Portugal.

As was the case after the final at the 2004 European Championships, Ronaldo walked off the pitch in tears, but this time his day ended in tears of joy as Portugal snatched a dramatic victory through a 109th minute goal from substitute Eder. Ronaldo was stretchered to the sideline after just 25 minutes with a knee injury, and the start of his waterworks looked to be the end for his country’s dreams of lifting their first ever international trophy.

That wasn’t the case though. With Ronaldo gone, Nani stepped in as captain, and his workrate was infectious throughout the Selecao. Working seamlessly as a unit, Fernando Santos’ team defended deep for long periods, pressing strategically to deny France any space in dangerous areas. They were especially successful in compacting the midfield in order to push an unusually defensive Paul Pogba back towards his own back four, frustrating the young dynamo and leaving him unable to strike up his usually telepathic connection with France’s player of the tournament, Antoine Griezmann.

Portugal’s gameplan to win the midfield was the real key on the day, as Santos used Joao Mario and Adrien Silva shrewdly to disrupt France’s tandem of Blaise Matuidi and Pogba, cut off service to the feet of Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud, and harass Dimitri Payet into submission. Moussa Sissoko was the only one of France’s midfielders to truly influence the game, and his marauding runs down the right and through the center presented constant issues for the Portuguese, but goalkeeper Rui Patricio was more than up to the task, reacting brilliantly to deny any danger to his goal. And if Portugal had to pick one France player to find space, they would have picked Sissoko every time.

Ronaldo is inarguably the Iberians’ most important player, and each one of his goals in the run-up to the final were vital, but his presence in the side is a relatively small part of Portugal’s overall gameplan. Like the famous Greek side that beat them in 2004, this Portugal isn’t built on attacking flair and free-flowing play, it’s predicated on defensive solidity and organization. Ronaldo’s Real Madrid teammate Pepe was perhaps his country’s most important figure in that regard. Despite a crucial mistake to nearly gift Andre-Pierre Gignac a goal in the final, Pepe was Portugal’s best defender this tournament, and one of the biggest reasons they were able to get to the there.

Portugal beat France the same way they made it to this point in the tournament: by grinding out results and hoping for either a moment of magic, or a bit of fortune to help them through. Ronaldo was often that magician, but it was pure defensive graft and grit that earned him and his teammates the right to lift the Henri Delauney trophy. Their showing in the final was exactly like every one before it.

It wasn’t pretty by any stretch, but Portugal had a gameplan and executed it to perfection. For six matches, they did it with one of history’s greatest ever players and in the final, they did it without him by sticking to the same plan that had gotten them that far. Ronaldo carried them to the final, and his teammates did what good teammates do, and returned the favor.

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