PARIS (Reuters) - The abiding memory of Dimitri Payet’s last appearance in a major final was a crunching tackle which forced a tearful Cristiano Ronaldo out of the Euro 2016 clash between France and Portugal.
Assuming he recovers from a minor injury, the 31-year-old will have a chance to put that memory behind him when he plays for Olympique de Marseille against Atletico Madrid in the Europa League final in Lyon on Wednesday.
Payet has been inspirational in Marseille’s run to their first European final since 2004 when they finished as runners-up to Valencia in the old UEFA Cup.
The Reunion Island-born player has scored three goals and provided six assists in the knockout stages and given himself a fighting chance of being recalled by France for the World Cup in Russia.
“He’s been at peak physical strength since January 2018, so he’s been able to offer the full extent of his talents,” said Marseille coach Rudi Garcia.
“He’s been a role model as captain. He’s often managed to raise the overall level of the team in the Europa League and that has enabled us to reach the final.”
Payet’s career has been full of ups and downs, particularly since the 2016 European Championship where he was one of France’s key players — until the final against Portugal.
Eight minutes into game, Payet’s crunching tackle on Ronaldo left the Portugal forward limping and eventually forced him to be substituted after 25 minutes.
Payet was subjected to some shocking abuse on social media, although he was not booked at the time and was later absolved of any blame by UEFA’s refereeing boss Pierluigi Collina.
If anything, it was Payet who suffered after the tackle. He never found the form in that game which he had showed in the rest of the tournament and was substituted in the second half.
Ronaldo, meanwhile, reinvented himself as an assistant coach on the touchline, urging on his team mates as they pulled off an unlikely 1-0 extra-time win.
Payet then fell out with his club West Ham United — he later said he became “bored” with their tactics — and following a tumultuous month, the Premier League side agreed to sell him to Olympique.
The return did not immediately go to plan as he was hampered by form and fitness problems, but he has blossomed since the Christmas break.
But just as his club form improved, he was dropped from the France squad for the March friendlies in what seemed almost a deliberate move by France coach Didier Deschamps to fire him up.
“He has two-and-a-half months of competitive matches to play,” said Deschamps. “He has improved in the last games but I know he can do better. I know what he is capable of.”
Payet missed Friday’s Ligue 1 match at Guingamp with an unidentified minor injury but Garcia said he expected the player to be fit for Wednesday’s final.
“You play football to be involved in these big games. It’s similar to Euro 2016 when we were at home. We can feel that passion from the French people. That’s how it is. It can really benefit us,” said Payet.
“If we win the final, we will be written into the club’s history books.”
Writing by Brian Homewood in Bern; Editing by Christian Radnedge