LISBON, PORTUGAL (AP) – The winner-takes-all showdown between Cristiano Ronaldo’s Portugal and world champion France on Saturday was decided by one of the least likely scorers on the quality-packed pitch at Lisbon’s Stadium of Light.
Midfielder N’Golo Kanté, whose prowess is tackling, not scoring, notched the only goal of a 1-0 win that ended Portugal’s bid to defend its Nations League title and sent the French into the final-of-four.
Joining the fray in a crowded area in search of a loose ball or rebound, Kanté was rewarded when goalkeeper Rui Patricio fumbled a ball into his path for him to finish off in the 54th minute.
It was Kanté’s second international goal in his 44th appearance for France. His other strike came in 2016 in a friendly against Russia.
France clinched a first-place finish in Group three with three more points than Portugal and the tiebreaker on head-to-head goals with one game to play. Portugal won last year’s inaugural Nations League.
France outplayed European champion Portugal and was denied a lead by halftime thanks only to Patricio.
“Given the quality of the opposition, it’s of course one of our best performances of recent times,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “We deserved the win and we’ve fulfilled our objective of finishing top. I’m very proud of the players. They proved tonight that France are still a great team.”
Starting for the injured Kylian Mbappe, France striker Anthony Martial hit the post on the half-hour mark and had two more good chances denied by Patricio.
Patricio closed quickly to smother Martial’s attempt to tap in a great throughball by Antoine Griezmann in the 12th. Martial’s header from a well-executed set-piece hit the crossbar on the half-hour mark, and Patricio stood firm to block another tap-in by Martial of Lucas Hernández’s low cross in the 41st.
Patricio kept his side in the match until shortly after the restart when he failed to keep his grip on a shot by Adrien Rabiot. Instead, he spilled the ball into the path of Kante to finish off.
Forced to focus on defending, Portugal’s playmaking trio of Bruno Silva, Bruno Fernandes and João Félix struggled to get involved.
Portugal star Cristiano Ronaldo was left seven goals shy of the men’s national team record held by former Iran striker Ali Daei with his 109 goals. His best chance came just before halftime when he headed the ball inches above the bar.
Portugal mustered its two best scoring chances once it fell behind.
Defender José Fonte almost equalised in the 60th when he headed off the post. France goalie Hugo Loris protected the lead by stretching to block a stinging shot by substitute João Moutinho with 15 minutes left. It was Portugal’s first home defeat in a competitive match in six years. It had not lost on home soil under coach Fernando Santos.
“We struggled a lot. France in the first half were superior,” Santos said. “In the second half we got better. It was a different game and we ended up suffering a goal that was decisive.”