Euro 2016 Talking Point: Have France come good at the right time?

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France turn on the style

Iceland were handed a swift reality check in the opening 45 minutes of their Euro 2016 quarter-final encounter with France on Sunday as they trailed 4-0 at half-time.

The hosts went on a rampage and showed no signs of uncertainty against the minnows who eliminated England in the round of 16.

Olivier Giroud opened the scoring after beating the offside trap and Paul Pogba grabbed the second.

Dimitri Payet then drilled a low effort into the bottom corner before Antoine Griezmann, aided by Giroud’s flick-on, ran onto through-ball and beat the keeper with an exquisite chipped finish.

France had not played to the best of their abilities leading up to the quarter-final tie as they edged past Romania and drew to Switzerland in the group stages before beating the Republic of Ireland 2-1 in the round of 16.

With the tournament now into its final stretch, this could just be the ideal time for the host nation to shift gears and go all the way.

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Euro 2016 diary: Zaza’s meme-ories and starting a Löw train

Mark Lomas 3/07/2016
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It was another enthralling couple of days in France.

START A LÖW TRAIN

It was 2am in the morning, but that wasn’t going to stop the German fans from singing. Sitting on the last tram back into the city centre from the Stade Bordeaux, the serenading began. The supporters had plenty of reason to celebrate after a thrilling shootout victory over Italy, but attention had quickly turned to a prospective semi-final against France. It wasn’t the most melodic version of La Marseillaise I’d ever heard but it certainly livened things up in carriage two.

The French national anthem has been adopted by many as a go-to chant during Euro 2016 – Claude Joseph Rouget de Lisle’s triumphant tune one that resonates with football folk. I’ve heard Irishmen singing it in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, standing arm in arm with French counterparts to form a rather formidable looking Gaelic/Gallic chain. I’ve seen the Welsh wailing it outside the Gare Lille Flandres, using oversized inflatable daffodils as microphones. And now Germans on a late-night Bordeaux tram, too.

It wasn’t just La Marseillaise on the German agenda. They paid tribute to Joachim Löw, the “weltbesten Trainer“ (best coach in the world), and belted out a song that has been a Nationalmannschaft mainstay since the 1960s -“Oh wie ist das schon” (how beautiful this is). The next stop for the Löw train is Marseille, whose public transport passengers had better brace themselves.

THANKS FOR THE MEME-ORIES

It could so easily have been Italian fans celebrating on that Bordeaux tram, but they were let down by some truly abominable penalties. Louis van Gaal showed at the 2014 World Cup that bringing on a penalty specialist can work wonders – Tim Krul’s heroics taking Netherlands past Costa Rica. Unfortunately, Simone Zaza won’t be remembered quite as favourably.

Stepping on the pitch a 119th minute substitute for Giorgio Chiellini, Zaza was introduced solely for the shootout. Jamie Carragher was an English equivalent back in the 2006 World Cup quarter-final against Portugal, introduced specifically because of his supposed penchant for penalties. The Liverpool defender failed, and so did Zaza. Spectacularly. The jittery run up, the ball sailing high over the crossbar – for the social media age, it was parody dynamite and the memes were instantaneous.

In the mixed zone after the match, Zaza and the other unsuccessful penalty takers trundled gingerly through, looking like scolded schoolboys with faces focused firmly at the floor. None spoke, not even Graziano Pelle, who had previously been a charming constant for the English media covering Italy’s games. It was not all that surprising given that, after previous efforts suggested a Panenka may have been on the cards, Pelle dragged his effort tamely wide in the shootout.

ZLATAN’S LONG GOODBYE

The Euros were momentarily forgotten when Zlatan Ibrahimovic was finally unveiled as a Manchester United player after several months of speculation. While using #ZlatanTime was a slightly cringeworthy move from the Red Devils, there’s no question that the transfer has stirred optimism among United fans that an exciting new era may await.

In France, the move has obviously received high billing and there is no question that Parisians in particular are devastated to see his departure. He is a demi-god in the French capital, someone who has transcended sport to also become a cultural icon. This was exemplified by L’Equipe releasing a 12-page magazine dedicated solely to the style of Zlatan.

What was in it? I hear you ask. Well, there was a double-page spread detailing his best Instagram posts and, my personal favourite, the full page picture of just his ponytail. I know sports fans weren’t the real target audience so I’ll try to dampen the cynicism a little – I actually genuinely enjoyed the cartoon that pictured Ibrahimovic standing alongside the likes of Napoleon and Donald Trump, with the caption “I am Zlatan, who the hell are you?”

BELGIUM’S LILLE PAD

The pick of the Euro 2016 quarter-finals has to be Wales’ victory over Belgium in Lille. Around 100,000 Belgian fans crossed the border (the nearest part of which is just 12km away), flooding the city and ensuring it felt like a home match for the Red Devils. However, they were to be disappointed as a wonderful Wales performance secured an historic 3-1 victory.

Not to let a little thing like a Euro 2016 quarter-final dampen their spirits, however, the Belgians congratulated, and even celebrated with, the Welsh – Lille’s Grand Place full to the brim until the wee small hours. The next morning, the train station was teeming with tired supporters, many of whom had slept at the station under Tricolore or Red Dragon flags.

On the early train back to Paris, the future of Marc Wilmots was at the centre of most discussions between fans and journalists alike. Christophe Franken, a reporter for Belgian newspaper La Dernière Heure, was one of those to proffer an opinion, saying: “He doesn’t have a Plan B. This isn’t good enough. It is time for him to take another job. Reaching the World Cup and European Championship quarter-finals is a good achievement. But with this generation, we have to be disappointed.”

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How Germany cast aside Azzurri albatross with shootout win

Mark Lomas 3/07/2016
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BORDEAUX, France — After losing on penalties to Germany at the 1990 World Cup, Enlgand striker Gary Lineker said, “Football is a simple game. Twenty-two men chase a ball and at the end, the Germans always win.”

And so it was again in Bordeaux. After 120 minutes of football that will be remembered more for strategy than spectacle, one of the most dramatic penalty shootouts in recent history was decided by the powerful palm of Manuel Neuer. In pushing away Matteo Darmian’s penalty, Neuer paved the way for new Bayern Munich team-mate Mats Hummels to slot home and set up a Euro 2016 semi-final date with either France or Iceland.

It was Germany’s sixth shootout triumph in a row, and not since the audacious chip of Antonin Panenka in the 1976 European Championship have they tasted defeat on penalties. Whether it’s been down to superior psychological strength or superior technique, it has quite simply been forty years of German spot-kick superiority.

As one run continued, Germany celebrated another ending; at the ninth attempt, they finally recorded a maiden victory over Italy in a competitive fixture, casting aside the Azzurri albatross that has hung around German necks since their first meeting at the 1962 World Cup in Chile.

On the balance of play over 120 minutes – for there was little balance in what was a topsy-turvy shootout – Germany were deserving of their progress to the semis. They outperformed their opponents, though Italy must once again be commended for showing the sort of dogged resistance and spirit that has come to characterise Antonio Conte’s Azzurri.

When the two nations met in the Euro 2012 semi-finals, it was a show stopping salvo from Mario Balotelli that gave Italy victory. After a much cagier affair in Bordeaux, it was Joachim Low who took the plaudits. In his tactical tête-à-tête with Conte, it was Lowe that emerged triumphant.

The Germany coach sprung a surprise with his line-up, opting for a 3-5-2 that saw Julian Draxler sacrificed despite a superb showing against Slovakia in the last-16. Mirroring Conte’s favoured formation certainly proved a smart plan, the Italians stifled and left struggling for ideas throughout as Germany dominated possession and looked far more adventurous in attack.

“I know there has been a lot of talk about the formation but it was necessary,” Low explained in his post-match press conference. “After the Italy Spain game it was my first thought. This was a game on a very high tactical level from both sides. I think we were superior on the pitch and the Italians, whose strengths consist of playing very well in the centre – we did very well not to let them do that.”

Low utilised Jonas Hector and Josh Kimmich as wing-backs, with Mats Hummels and Jerome Boateng alongside Benedikt Howedes in a back three. The centre-backs exhibited an impressive variety of pinpoint long passing throughout, Hummels almost adding an assist to his name after floating a ball forward for Bastian Schweinsteiger reminiscent of Leonardo Bonucci’s for Emanuele Giaccherini in Italy’s opening win over Belgium. Like Giaccherini, Schweinsteiger found the back of the net, but the Germany captain was adjudged to have pushed Mattia De Sciglio.

Germany’s opening goal was certainly a triumph for Low’s system, created as it was by left wing-back Hector. He raced on to Mario Gomez’s smart reverse pass before finding Mesut Ozil, who showed more poise slotting home from eight yards than he managed from 12 later on.

On the right-hand side, Kimmich was a little less convincing – the threat of his marauding runs forward tempered by a couple of moments when he risked exposing Germany to onrushing opposite number De Sciglio. He did, however, show some impressive defensive resolve in extra-time, with both Kimmich and Hector both singled out for praise by Low after scoring in the shootout.

It is intriguing to watch the two coaches at work. They cut contrasting figures in the technical area, Low always looking relaxed with his snug jumper and hands in pockets, while Conte gesticulates wildly in his chic suit, kicking every ball and enthusiastically inculcating.

Chelsea fans should be enthused by Conte, and not just because his suave dress sense will not look out of place on the King’s Road. Conte has shown at Euro 2016 what those at Juventus already knew well – he is simultaneously a superb tactician and skilled motivator. The Italy coach was humble in defeat, recognising that Low’s decision to overhaul Germany’s formation was a compliment to his side.

“I think Germany had huge respect for Italy,” Conte said after the match. “The fact that the world champions changed their formation to play us shows that they at least had significant respect for us. It was a tough match from every perspective.

“It’s a shame to go out in this fashion because it was the lottery of the penalty shootout and we were also leading before the first penalty. However, a top side goes through. I think they are the best side in the world at this moment in time from every angle.

“The fact we were able to match them should be a slight achievement from us from a certain perspective but we believed we could do it and ultimately the disappointment was huge in the dressing room come the end of the game. We really believed in this dream and we scrapped, we really tried to cling on to this dream as best we could.”

For now that dream is over, while old adversaries Germany take another step towards emulating Spain by completing a World Cup and European Championship double. Banners at the German end of the Stade Bordeaux celebrated the trio of continental triumphs of 1972, 1980 and 1996; given the talent at Low’s disposal and his aptitude for tactical adaptability, the addition of a fourth is looking increasingly probable.

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