A moment in Marijampole
It was a deja vu final. After a 19-piece band had played the national anthems, France and Serbia's players exchanged handshakes in Marijampole just as they had done barely seven days before, prior to their 1-1 group phase draw in Kaunas. In football, it is rare for familiarity to breed contempt. But it can easily breed caution.
The two coaches had emphasised the relevance of rest-and-recovery procedures after both teams had come through the physical and mental stresses of extra time to secure their second meeting. But, as the Belarusian referee began the match at 21.45 sharp in a stadium tinged purple by the sunset, there was no sign of fatigue. On the other hand, there were symptoms of tension, mutual respect and a desire to prevent the opposition from settling into their game. The ball had scarcely started rolling when UEFA's technical observers turned to each other and concurred that this final could be decided by one mistake or lapse of concentration.
Although armed with volumes of scouting knowledge, the Serbian lineup was not so deja vu for Francis Smerecki's France. With a semi-final place in the bag, coach Ljubinko Drulović had rested six players during the Group B confrontation – among them his target striker Aleksandar Mitrović, who was to emerge as the most troublesome thorn in the French side. His off-the-ball movement, control and speed on the turn were displayed in the 11th minute when, after setting himself up nicely, he sent his shot wide. By this time, a pattern had emerged. For both teams, defensive duties commenced with fierce pressure on the ball-carrier aimed at disturbing build-up play in midfield. Attack-to-defence transitions were executed with great pace and efficiency. Approach work often ran into brick walls, with the ball-carrier finding no solution other than a backward turn, a backward pass or both.
There were also signs of tactical stalemate. Drulović remained faithful to his 4-2-3-1 structure, deploying Sergej Milinković-Savić and Nemanja Maksimović in midfield screening roles, with the mobile Marko Pavlovski operating in the wake of Mitrović, seeking to exploit any central spaces opened up by the forward's intelligent movement. On the flanks, Uroš Djurdjević and Andrija Luković burned calories fulfilling attacking and defensive duties which included tracking back to control France's overlapping full-backs, in particular Jordan Ikoko who represented one of the French side's main attacking threats.
Smerecki's 4-3-3 inverted Serbia's midfield triangle, with Larry Azouni operating as single screening midfielder slightly behind two attack-minded Adriens – Hunou and Rabiot. But there were interchanges of positions and roles throughout the game. In the wide areas, Corentin Jean and Anthony Martial switched wings, while the competitive Yassine Benzia battled for possession against the strong Serbian central defenders. The opening half-hour was a tense, intense demonstration of unstinting effort and awareness of risk-management factors – exemplified by France keeping five players behind the ball when they had a free-kick in Serbian territory. And there was no shortage of free-kicks, as 36 of them chopped the contest into small episodes.
After half an hour of smouldering, the match burst into flames before the interval – hinting that fatigue might, indeed, become a relevant factor. For France, Martial's arts created room on the left for him to fire narrowly over; a through pass sent Ikoko clear, only for him to take a touch too many and shoot into the side netting; and Hunou forced the Serbian goalkeeper Predrag Rajković to demonstrate his competence with a low left-footed strike. For Serbia, Djurdjević shot straight at Quentin Beunardeau in the French goal, who then calmly gathered a free-kick from Pavlovski. Despite the late flurry, the first half ended goalless.
Twelve minutes of the second half had passed when the moment arrived. A long cross from the Serbian right by Pavlovski floated over the head of central defender Antoine Conte and reached Mitrović, who was sufficiently surprised to apply an imperfect first touch which took him so close to the byline that the shooting opportunity was gone. However, he managed to adjust his body position and cut the ball back into the path of the advancing Luković, who side-footed into the net. The breakthrough had been achieved and it had favoured the red-and-blue of Serbia.
But while the Serbians were still in celebration mode, France served a warning that they could spoil the party. For once, the Serbians left themselves exposed to a counterattack, rounded off when Benzia laid the ball off to Hunou, whose shot was parried by Rajković.
The two momentary lapses in concentration galvanised the coaches into action. Smerecki, wearing a green bib over an all-white strip in line with his players, changed both his wingers and, as the clock ran down, sent on the attack-minded Jean-Philippe Gbamin to replace Hunou with a view to creating chaos in Serbian lines via his explosive pace. Drulović, also matching his team's colours in a red-and-blue tracksuit, urged his charges to grab the chance for glory and maintain the intensity of their defensive play, strengthening the specific gravity of his side's midfield play by sending on Dejan Meleg for goal hero Luković.
The script for the last half-hour held no surprises and had no twist in the tail. The French pushed relentlessly forward but could find no route through the central areas of Serbia's compact defensive block. Their only recompense was a series of corners which paid no dividends against the mass of red-and-blue. Shots were blocked by Serbian bodies before they could trouble the goalkeeper. And the lack of space for through passes or solo runs prompted long-range efforts, notably by substitutes Lenny Nangis and Kevin Rodrigues.
As time ticked away and France's frustration grew, the Balkan side drew on their reserves of fitness and team spirit, dropping into deep defensive mode in what frequently became an 8-2 formation. The French, maybe suffering the physical and mental after-effects of their extenuating semi-final against Spain, could find no such reserves. Drulović made two late changes to consume some extra seconds; goalkeeper Rajković was booked for an attempt to do likewise; and when the final whistle sounded, Les Bleuets dejectedly accepted the inevitable while the Serbian players found enough energy for jigs of delight.
Before the final, Drulović had received a text message from José Mourinho, assistant to Sir Bobby Robson when the Serbia coach was playing at FC Porto. The message was a Spanish footballing adage: "Finals are not to play: they are to win." Message received. Serbia had won their first UEFA trophy thanks to team spirit, will to win and the ability to successfully exploit the moment.