France finished top of Group A, not quite at a gallop but convincingly enough after an initially boisterous, ultimately slow-burn draw with Switzerland in Lille. The Swiss are also through and showed some real muscle and craft after Paul Pogba had looked like making this game all his own in an early burst of all-round midfield power-play.
Didier Deschamps will welcome another clean sheet for his new-build defence. By the end, though, with the real business of this two-part Euros now booked in, the suspicion remains there is still some clicking into place needed for that talented chop-and-change midfield.
Even before kick off this felt like a low-pressure occasion, with no more than a mild celebratory purr around the stadium as the hosts emerged. Lille is lodged up in the northeastern shoulder of France, a waffle’s width from the Belgian border, with a nice neat stadium that is a notch down from the heat of Marseille and the Stade de France.
“Lâcher les freins” was the match-day headline in L’Équipe, urging Deschamps to take off the brakes and allow this team of multi-talents to rev up through the gears. Here he made five changes, all in the front six, with Antoine Griezmann, André-Pierre Gignac, Paul Pogba, Moussa Sissoko and Johan Cabaye coming in to a 4-3-2-1 formation.
Early on France zipped the ball about well enough although it was Switzerland who had the first chance with Pogba almost flailing the ball into his own net from a corner only for Johann Djourou to deflect the ball away. At which point Pogba pulled himself up to his full height and took the opening quarter of this game by the scruff.
First Pogba started and finished a fine move, winning the ball deep in his half, taking it back from Gignac’s fine twist and then curling in a shot that Yann Sommer palmed over. Moments later he danced and jiggled his way across the box and spanked a drive with the outside of his foot, only for Sommer to save again, a high-class moment of skill.
Pogba was bullying Switzerland. Roving infield from the left he drove forward and shot with thrilling power, wobbling the cross bar. Next came a whipped cross that narrowly evaded the eager Gignac. “Pogba!” the crowd chanted, buzzing every time he got the ball.
For Switzerland this was a chance to seal qualification and also to shake off a little gathered rust, to still some hints of tension in the camp. Breel Embolo came in at centre-forward but spent most of the opening half-hour defending as France surged on both flanks, winning a series of corners. Steadily though Switzerland began to creep back into things, with Granit Xhaka and Valon Behrami snapping closer and Shaqiri tracking back furiously.Kingsley Coman, nippy and incisive on both flanks, was repeatedly fouled.
Pogba began to slip a little, a combination perhaps of the poor, multi-use pitch (Rihanna is the next headliner here a month from now) and some recent problems with not having – seriously – the right boots. By half-time France had decelerated after that thrilling early burst.
Xhaka had been the man to lead the Swiss, knuckling down, passing carefully and showing real strength in the clinches. If France lacked something between their thrusts it was perhaps a little easy dominance in the centre, with Cabaye unable to assert his passing rhythms.
Switzerland continued to squeeze. Embolo and Blerim Dzemaili ganged up on Pogba, robbing the ball as he thrashed like a lassoed tyrannosaur. On the flanks France’s three-man midfield offered space as Switzerland drove purposefully wide. Still there was plenty of thrust as Sissoko powered across halfway and played in Gignac for a low shot. It was high-intensity stuff at times: one collision between Griezmann and Behrami was so intense the ball exploded.
Griezmann finally moved to the centre from the left and sprung past Xhaka, shooting powerfully but close to Sommer. With just over an hour gone there was a huge cheer around the Pierre-Mauroy as Dmitri Payet appeared on the touchline to replace Coman.
Payet slotted into the same left-sided channel, drifting inside as ever and with 75 minutes gone producing the moment of the half, and so nearly the group stage, as he met Sissoko’s cross on the run and spanked a wonderful leaping volley on to the underside of the bar. Sissoko had made a wonderful barrelling run to the corner. It would have been a sensational goal.
Deschamps will have a little to ponder after a performance that ran out of urgency by the end. The configuration of the midfield still looks a little off, with plenty of nice moments but no obvious pattern of how to tesselate best all the talent at his disposal. Gignac started well but was an absence in the second half. What France do have, though, is strength in reserve and time now to settle again.
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