Portugal vs France | Wednesday 23rd June 2020, 20:00 | BBC
The curtain comes down on the first stage of Euro 2020 as an intriguing Group of Death completes the opening 36 games of this year's tournament as World Champions France take on Portugal, who, if defeated, could be the first defending champions of the European crown eliminated at the group stage since Greece in 2008.
Les Bleus at least have the luxury of knowing they are assured of a place in the round of 16 as these two sides prepare for their first group game on neutral territory here in Hungary, however they will want to claim the win here which will guarantee them top spot and a tie with a third placed team in the first of the knockout rounds.
Gareth Southgate and his team will have more than a passing interest in this clash as they will host the runners up in the group, but with all four teams still possible to finish in that position we should expect a few twists and turns as the night progresses, with Germany hosting Hungary, buoyed by their surprise 1-1 draw with the French, in the other tie.
Portugal opened their campaign with a potentially flattering 3-0 win over the group underdogs having only broken the deadlock in the 84th minute but although starting brightly against Germany, self-destructed but incredibly scoring two own goals in the space of four first half minutes, as they eventually crashed to a 4-2 defeat – leaving the defence of their crown in peril.
Fernando Santos has of course been here before qualifying with just three points en route to lifting the trophy back in 2016 and despite Wolves’ Joao Moutinho insisting “It’s hypothetical whether we finish first, second or third. Our focus is on winning.” I’m not sure his boss sees things that way and will possibly prioritise avoiding defeat to ensure passage to the next round and a possible clash with Belgium or Netherlands.
In the bleu corner Didier Deschamps has spent much of the buildup insisting he has faith that Karim Benzema will break his goal duck since his recall for Euro 2020, in a move which was widely acclaimed to have made the already formidable French even stronger – with Antoine Griezmann adding to his managers comments by saying: “We all support him (Benzema) and have confidence in him.”
One man certainly not short of confidence is Kylian Mbappe, who as as part of his sides unaccustomed 4-3-1-2 formation could be vital in breaking down what is likely to be a well drilled and more Portugal like Seleção.
The PSG man looked dangerous in France’s opener, a 1-0 win over Germany, although only having one shot (on target), putting in two crosses creating one chance, it could have been so much better as he was inches away from getting a goal and an assist after two goals for France got chalked off for offsides after VAR reviews.
Against Hungary the 22-year-old took six shots, a tally none of his teammates could match, created two chances and was a constant menace to the home defence in the disappointing draw.
We should expect to see Mbappe pulling over to the left side where his lightening pace, close control and skill could cause all kinds of headaches for a combination of 38-year-old Pepe and Nelson Semedo who looked all at sea when dreadfully exposed by Germany at the weekend, who should be patrolling that area,
The French superstar will certainly fancy his chances to finally either find the back of the net in this contest or log an assist however an eye-catching performance is almost a given especially with a man he is looking to take over from as one of the most feared attackers in the game at the other end of the pitch in opposition.
So, with this in mind I am taking a chance not on goals or assists directly but instead the Man of the Match award.
The award has been fairly even split amongst outfield positions from the 32 games so far with 9 defenders (28%), 11 midfielders (34%) and 12 attackers (38%) emerging victorious after the UEFA Technical Observer has made their decision – but with names like Romelu Lukaku (x2), David Alaba, Cristiano Ronaldo, Paul Pogba, Luka Modrić and Kevin De Bruyne already on the winners list – Mbappe will be expected to join them.
Odds of 4/1 aren’t massive but I feel this game is there for him to grab by the scruff of the neck and officially announce himself on the tournament.
My second and final bet is one I have had a lot of success with in the opening games and is available via Bet Builder with Bet 365.
In their last 10 competitive internationals Portugal have taken 153 free kicks whilst over the same time frame France have conceded 160 giving a combined average of 15.65 free kicks per game and given the line for CR7 and his team is set at 13.5 it warranted a further investigation.
There is an easy form line for us to draw which is unusual in international football but has become more common with the introduction of the Nations League – a competition in which these two countries met only last year.
First up was a Parisian 0-0 stalemate in October – a result Portugal would most definitely take here at the Puskás Aréna, Budapest – a game in which the away side took 21 free kicks following 19 fouls and two offside decisions, then just one month later when the two met again in Lisbon, France claimed all three points but saw them commit 17 fouls.
With so much on the line and a game state which should ensure high intensity for the majority of the 90+ minutes odds of 10/11 look very appealing for Portugal to take a minimum of 14 free kicks in this one.