France are going through the emotional wringer at this Euro but, as far as results are concerned, they are purely elated.
After another stuttering, stumbling performance that looked set for frustration, Antoine Griezmann played the role that reduced Dimitri Payet to tears in their opening game by snatching delirious victory from the jaws of a disappointing draw with a 90th-minute header. Not to be outdone, the little wizard from West Ham triggered an outpouring of joy with a virtuoso goal in stoppage time.
Having broken Albania’s remarkable resistance, France become the first team to qualify for the knockout stage of this tournament, thanks to their double late, late show. It has become a happy habit.
It was hard for Albania to stomach, having played with admirable resilience. They do not have any points to show for two high-concentration performances where their few lapses were brutally punished. France plugged away without looking particularly convincing – no doubt that will be a talking point in the French camp over the coming days – and their persistence paid off when Adil Rami slung in a cross to find Griezmann, one of the smallest players on the pitch, unattended. For a small striker he is impressively efficient with his head, and he did not disappoint here.
That it was Griezmann who made the critical breakthrough was significant in that it embodied how Didier Deschamps is shuffling his attacking pack. In the opening game against Romania he began with Griezmann and Paul Pogba, and the tempo of the game improved when he introduced Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman. This time the situation was reversed.
A pessimist might say that the manager does not know his best team. An optimist will say that France are blessed with options and variation, and it is asking a lot of most defences to try to deal with all those forward forces during 90 minutes.
Still, it was a was a bold call to tinker so radically with his front line. Unleashing the speedy verve of the younger pair was intended to pep up France. But those expecting an instant lift had not factored in the strong Italian influence Giovanni De Biasi has given Albania. They were resolute, organised, sharp in the tackle and keen to cover one another defensively as France probed.
The Stade Vélodrome crackled with nervous energy, the highly tuned expectancy of the French coursing in one direction, euphoric delight brimming out of the Albanians, who even before the game had been dancing and tooting car horns near the Rond-Point du Prado, just outside the super-structure of Marseille’s modernised amphitheatre.
Initial excitement mutated into gnawing tension as France’s positive intentions began to break down. A spark in the restructured team did not happen naturally.
Albania sensed they could do some damage. Ermir Lanjani, making inroads with his persistence on the left, saw a shot deflect off Patrice Evra. Shortly before half-time Evra was lucky not to be penalised when a high foot caught Andi Lila at head height. Ledian Memushaj’s free-kick skimmed the roof of the net.
In the dugout Deschamps bit his nails. Yet again France went in for their half-time team-talk with much to discuss after an inhibited performance. Other than checking the flight of a couple of Olivier Giroud headers as they drifted over, Etrit Berisha had not been a busy goalkeeper.
The solution? Deschamps tried to flick the switch with the introduction of Pogba, and later Griezmann. France reverted to their plan A in a 4-3-3 and revved up to start again. They almost scored immediately as Giroud’s cross bounced off Blaise Matuidi’s shoulder and Coman headed goalwards. It was close but not half as close as Bacary Sagna, who was a fraction away from scoring an own-goal past Hugo Lloris as he tangled to try to challenge Memushaj. The sound of around 60,000 sharp intakes of breath accompanied the sight of the ball bouncing back off a post.
Back came France, with Pogba arriving unmarked to meet Payet’s delightful cross only to put his rising shot too high. The next chances fell to Giroud, who skewed a header wide before thumping another against a post. The crowd called for one of their old favourites, André-Pierre Gignac.
France continued to try to press for chances but clean, clear-cut sights of goal were hard to come by. Their support could not believe it when Pogba slipped as he shaped to shoot but just as it seemed the opportunities had knocked and nobody had answered, Griezmann transformed everything for the Euro 2016 hosts.
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