France stamp their authority on Euro 2016

Mark Lomas 4/07/2016
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France finally show up

PARIS, France — As La Marseillaise rang out around the Stade de France after the final whistle, it felt as though France had finally arrived at Euro 2016. The anthem urges citizens to ‘marchons, marchons’ and that’s exactly what Les Bleus did – advancing through Iceland’s defensive line at will and powering into the semi-finals.

It was the performance that the French public had been waiting patiently for three weeks to witness. Didier Deschamps’ side have made a habit of just ‘doing enough’ so far at this tournament. But while narrow victories are of course the hallmark of champions, there’s really nothing like a goal glut to inspire confidence.

Against an Iceland starting XI that was unchanged for a fourth game in succession, France looked far fresher. It was a display of real swagger, a ruthless razing of Iceland’s European Championship dreams.

When Les Bleus won Euro 1984 it was a 5-0 annihilation of Belgium in the group stage that really got France believing. This five-goal haul has had a similarly stirring effect.

They may not be able to call on the storied ‘Magic Square’ as they did on home soil 32 years ago, but Deschamps can certainly boast a quality quartet. In Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann, France have four tremendously gifted footballers.

Against Iceland, they produced some breathtaking one-touch football and each played a role in France’s five goals, Les Bleus’ list of creators and scorers reading: Matuidi to Giroud, Griezmann to Pogba, Griezmann to Payet, Giroud to Griezmann, Payet to Giroud.

Matuidi is the group’s unsung hero, quietly going about his business, breaking up play with aplomb. At one stage in the first half he gave the ball away cheaply in midfield but ran hell for leather to atone for his error, emerging with the ball. He didn’t lose it again. Matuidi has guile as well as grit, though, exemplified by his perfectly weighted assist for Giroud’s opener.

With Pogba’s powerful running, Griezmann’s direct dribbling and Payet’s perfect deliveries – plus a confident, in-form Olivier Giroud – France looked formidable. As Pogba rose to head home the second goal from Griezmann’s corner, you couldn’t help but think of Zinedine Zidane’s World Cup final header here at the Stade de France in 1998. Pogba is still some way short of that lofty billing, but his influence is growing as the tournament progresses.

Expectation will now be heightened and rightly so. With Germany missing the valuable experience of Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Mario Gomez, France can be viewed as favourites for the semi-final clash.

For Iceland, Euro 2016 expectations have been comfortably exceeded. They have shaken up both the established order and French stadiums alike, their deafening Viking war cry proving almost as popular as ‘Will Grigg’s On Fire’ off the pitch.

On it, there were at least a pair of consolation goals to celebrate at the Stade de France, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Birkir Bjarnason ensuring a whitewash was avoided. It wasn’t the fairytale ending the neutrals had hoped for, but Iceland have broken through many barriers at these European Championship and it will be no surprise if another is dismantled in 2018.

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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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