After the heartbreak of England’s penalty defeats to Germany in 1996 and Argentina in 1998, my wife wisely decided to save herself further misery and drew upon her French heritage and the strong Franco-Gooner connections and became a fully-fledged supporter of Les Bleus. As an Arsenal fan myself, and having lived in Marseille, I can also count France as one of the teams that I always want to do well. So last night’s game carried huge added tension from our point of view.
Following the horrific terrorist attacks at the Stade de France and elsewhere in Paris in November, it has felt that the French football team needs a victory in this tournament to draw together a nation that fell out of love with them after their histrionics in South Africa in 2010. Also on the agenda was the small matter of revenge for semi-final defeats in 82 and 86 and for elimination at the last World Cup.
After a rousing rendition of Le Marseillais, in the city that gave the anthem its name, Didier Deshamps’ men started the game on the front foot, trying to establish control of the match. The plan seemed to be to use Griezmann to exploit the space in front of the heart of Germany’s defence; and it nearly paid off when the Atletico Madrid forward combined with Matuidi and sliced through the German defence testing Neuer with a low drive. Using the mercurial forward as a second striker meant that Deschamps had to sacrifice defensive solidity in the middle of the park by leaving out Kante and as the game wore on Germany gained control of the midfield and forced France back. Their dominance of possession and clever combination play around the box tested France’s defence to the limit; but they stood firm, Koscielny and the inexperienced Umtiti in particular working overtime to repel wave after wave of German attacks. For all the pressure however, Germany could not find the breakthrough, a shot fired wide by Muller and a Lloris save from a Can shot from 20 yards being the closest they came.
As half-time approached France started to get back into the game, Giroud’s lack of pace and awareness meant that a good break was wasted; but in added time at the end of the half, Schweinsteiger led with an arm in challenging Evra for a corner and the Italian referee booked him for handball and awarded France a penalty. To the letter of the law it was probably a penalty but it surprised everyone, the French included, that it was given. After missing from the spot in the Champions League Final, Griezmann made no mistake this time and fired his shot into the top left hand corner with Neuer going the wrong way.
Having weathered the German storm for the majority of the first half, France started the second knowing they had to take the game to their opponents right from the start, as a means of halting the inevitable fight back. Giroud had another glorious opportunity two minutes in but dwelt too long on the ball again and his shot was blocked.
Germany continued to dominate possession but were still not creating the chances they needed and were then undone by another unforced error; Kimmich was caught dawdling on the ball in his own area and dispossessed by Pogba who with some clever footwork worked space to cross, Neuer couldn’t claim it and the ball fell to that man Griezmann to poke home his second of the match and sixth of the tournament.
In a desperate surge in the final quarter of an hour Germany threw everything they could muster at France; Kimmich hit a post, Draxler fizzed a free-kick inches wide and Llloris produced a stunning save in added time to deny Kimmich retribution for his error. In the end France stood firm and the final whistle sparked scenes of pandemonium not just in the Velodrome and the Fanzones but also in our living room; during which, in a celebration borrowed from the brilliant Iceland fans, we were treated to a rendition of ‘Le Clapping’.
Germany had been the better team for the most part but France took their chances when they came and sealed progression to the final. It is unlikely that Portugal will be as good as the Germans, so as long as they approach the game with the right attitude and level of commitment, they should become the third French side to win a major international tournament on home soil. Both of those previous tournament-winning teams were led by a magical talent; another display like that it may just be that Antoine Griezmann adds his name to those of Platini and Zidane as the legends of French football folklore.