France are away, just about and not without a stutter and the odd clanging false step. On a steamy, occasionally fraught night at the Stade de France Euro 2016 kicked off with a gathering roar as the tournament favourites grappled their way to a 2-1 win against a gnarly and capable Romania.
For now Didier Deschamps will thank heaven, and indeed Nantes, Marseille, West Ham and the island of Réunion for Dmitri Payet, who smashed in a roof-lifting winning goal in the final knockings. So much for the best-laid plans. On a night when France needed a hero, they got one in the shape of a gorgeously talented, creative late-blooming 29-year-old, who worked part-time in a clothes shop while he was at Nantes and around the time this tournament was being divvied up was briefly struggling in and out of the Saint-Etienne team.
Payet was a relentlessly slick and waspish presence, making Olivier Giroud’s headed opener and producing an all-round performance to sit against anything France’s more illustrious No10s have dished up in one of these tournament opening acts.
For a team of such obvious power and talent every clog in the machine – and there were plenty in a skittish attack and clenched and narrow midfield – is cause for unease. France struggled at times against ornery opponents playing their familiar brand of deep yellow sponge-football, absorbing all, just about keeping their shape.
Beyond this the overriding feeling was quiet relief, the sense that simply staging a full-house, full-blown opener would put a certain anxiety to rest. On that score France can be proud. This was a wonderfully engaging, trouble-free opening night to a tournament that will now look to build and gather in intensity over the next four weeks.
Before kick-off the steeply banked bowl crackled faintly with a sense of slightly cautious event glamour. At pitchside the huge, frightening figure of Super Victor, the Euro 2016 mascot, skulked and mooched. At one point, as the mind-numbingly dull Euro-disco stopped, there was pretty much silence around this full-house stadium.
For once the opening ceremony was a welcome ice-breaker. A slightly loopy Folies Bergère tribute hoof-about went on for a while, interrupted by the great David Guetta, who played some records and waved his arms around until it was time for him to stop. The best bit as ever was La Marseillaise, sung with an adrenal roar, a city that has felt a little wait-and-see about all this finding a familiar point of ignition.
The question for the host nation is whether they have the craft and spirit to go on and win the competition. If there is a doubt about this French team, it is the whispers over a lack of an obvious central cog, a properly A-list star. Raymond Domenech, who says so many things some of them must be right some of the time, thinks the team’s only real leader is Deschamps, who, for all his steel and fight, came to this game in a suit and tie.
French success has often seemed to build around a leader from the front, some larger than life creative maestro. Victory at Euro 1984 was driven by a sustained Maradona-scale performance from Michel Platini. Later the team’s hopes and anxieties could coalesce around Zinedine Zidane. It would be absurd to suggest Payet’s excellent show against a moderate opponent means he is ready to go on and enter such company but France will warm to his fearlessness here. Payet may have been cast as a slightly troubled character in the distant past but the difficult ones are often the real jewels and these days he is a gloriously mature and likeable insider-outsider, always playing with his head up, always looking for the slid pass into space.
Otherwise France flickered and fizzed, struggling to settle for a decisive blow against smothering opponents. What they do have, as they showed in one gorgeous 10-minute first-half spell, is some serious core strength, a girdle of iron around the middle of this team that will squeeze better teams than Anghel Iordanescu’s Romania. This is Paul Pogba’s gift when he plays as he can, the ability to make the game look alarmingly simple. Pass, run, tackle, shoot, head, dribble: he does them all with such ease.
Pogba, flickered in and out, though, and would surely benefit simply from being more central at least some of the time. Inside him N’Golo Kanté continued to show that peculiar gift of prescience, a player who carries around a constantly refreshing chart of angles and possibilities, sniping and twisting to fill the spaces behind the spaces, like a man playing in real-time while everyone else is fumbling about behind a three-second radio delay.
The problems were obvious, too. A so-so defence will offer space, as it did to Romania. Bogdan Stancu’s equaliser from the penalty spot was deserved. A more clinical striker would have taken some of the chances Giroud missed in the opening hour, each time looking ever more angsty and tense.
To his credit Giroud kept going to score the opener but the prospect of a player with Anthony Martial’s speed and movement feeding Payet’s rapacious eye for space will be much discussed. For now, France will breath again and celebrate its ageing, slightly rakish star, a leader in all the right ways at just the right time.
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