French in no mood to help extend Iceland’s fairytale run
Gulf in class finally exposed as the hosts move on to big semi-final date with Germany
As the stadium announcer counted down the seconds to kick-off at the Stade de France, Antoine Griezmann stood with his foot on the ball in the centre circle, gnawing at his fingernails.
You could see France’s anxiety, what was at stake for them against the unbeaten Icelanders. It wasn’t fair on either side, but the fact was that to lose this match would have consigned this French generation to eternal footballing disgrace.
The problem for the French all tournament had been their habit of starting slowly. They knew they couldn’t make as confused a start against Iceland as they had against Ireland last week.
Dmitri Payet had reflected after the Ireland game: “For the first half, we played their game. We wasted a lot of energy playing their game.”
The challenge for France was to play their game from the start. The only issue is that Didier Deschamps is still trying to work out just what type of game that is.
He had begun the tournament – and the Ireland match – with a three-man midfield of Kante, Pogba and Matuidi and a three-man forward line.
But France had played much better after Kante had come off and Griezmann had moved centrally to play off Olivier Giroud.
Kante’s suspension for this match meant that Deschamps had to choose between replacing him with another midfielder and retaining his original formation, or the more attacking approach that had brought the goals against Ireland.
He decided to take the latter option. France didn’t waste any time playing Iceland’s game.
So cheapThe disappointment for Iceland will be that the goals they conceded were so cheap.
The first was a simple chip over the top by Matuidi. The second a far-post header from a corner.
The fourth was a ball that went straight through the middle of their defence for Griezmann, and the fifth another header from a set-piece.
For Iceland, something was lacking that had been there in their four previous games. Maybe the occasion got to them; maybe it was just that their luck ran out.
Different levelDon’t forget, also, that France are on a different level to Portugal, Austria, Hungary and England. The goals they scored might have been frustrating from Iceland’s point of view, but there was also exceptional skill; the touch and speed of Griezmann, the vision and precision of Payet, the awesome power of Pogba, who levelled Bodvarsson as he scored his header.
At half-time Iceland were 4-0 down.
Losing by six would have made it the worst defeat in European Championship history, but they gathered themselves and rallied to win the second half 2-1, with Giroud, such a reliable punisher of weaker teams, replying immediately to Iceland’s first goal to snuff out any thoughts of a comeback.
France face Germany on Thursday in Marseille in a match many will consider the real final.
The French look the most dangerous team but Germany are the most accomplished remaining opponents they could face.
The further Iceland went in the tournament, the greater the chance that it would all end in a massive defeat. This team have the peace of knowing they went out on their shields.