This was France serving notice of their quality. A team who had rather huffed and puffed up to now, scraping through late in contests they had been expected to win at a canter, rediscovered their rhythm in the drizzle of Saint-Denis to cast Iceland from the tournament.
Their opponents have provided one of the most refreshing and uplifting stories of these finals, the fans’ Viking chant still echoing defiantly around the arena long after the final whistle, but the natural order has been restored. In the end the smallest nation ever to grace a major finals endured their fairytale being trampled underfoot by a true contender.
Didier Deschamps could survey the scene with satisfaction from his dugout, substituting those players who had been flirting with suspension long before the end and even forgiving the odd pang of defensive frailty exposed after the interval. There is an acceptance those errors will have to be eradicated on Thursday. Germany await in Marseille, a tête-à-tête which usually brings the French out in a cold sweat when it comes to major finals. Memories drift to Seville in 1982, Guadalajara in 1986, even the Maracana in 2014, when Les Bleus have been defeated by foes whom they have not defeated in a competitive game for 58 years. “Confident? No,” said Olivier Giroud. “The Germans are world champions and favourites. But we want to write a new chapter in the history of French football.”
On this evidence they will believe they can stretch Joachim Löw’s team at Stade Vélodrome. It is the thrill of the attacking play which gives the French hope, combined with the belief that the blend of spiky aggression and purring quality offered by Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi can set them apart. They were irrepressible from the outset here, a team who have tended to rouse themselves late instead stirring early. By the interval the scoreline suggested a thrashing: not quite a trouncing to match that mustered by Germany against Brazil in Belo Horizonte two years ago but not far off. Iceland, so resilient and combative to this point, simply could not cope with the brutality of it all.
There was so much to admire in the rewards taken up to the interval. Matuidi’s wonderfully arced pass, eased over Birkir Saevarsson and beyond Kari Arnason from the halfway line, had set the tone. Giroud trundled on to the delivery and belted through Hannes Halldorsson’s legs to force his team ahead. Just before the interval it was Pogba sliding a pass from deep, Giroud confusing a shattered Icelandic back-line with a stepover, and there was Antoine Griezmann skipping away from Arnason and Ragnar Sigurdsson before lobbing the goalkeeper. The chip was cheeky, that of a striker thriving under the weight of expectation, and for a while at least the locals’ booming Hosanna drowned out the Iceland Huh. Arnason would not return for the second half.
Pogba’s thumping header from Griezmann’s corner, the Juventus midfielder leaping above Jon Dadi Badvarsson and planting his effort beyond Saevarsson on the goal-line, was just as emphatic. France have seen only flashes of their young talisman to date and they will need him to be at his authoritative best in Marseille, but the power which has propelled his club side was in evidence as he stamped his authority on the tie. Deschamps could also draw encouragement from the contribution of Newcastle’s Moussa Sissoko, playing with an effervescence too often lacking last term on Tyneside, on the right and the continued brilliance of Dimitri Payet, flitting between flank and central playmaker with such menace.
A beleaguered back-line never really came close to snuffing out his threat, the West Ham man a blur of movement, forever eking out space in which to wound wary opponents. He had been loitering on the edge of the area when Bacary Sagna crossed, Giroud knocked down and Griezmann laid off, Payet spitting away an accurate left-foot shot to register his third goal of the tournament. It seems remarkable now that this is a player who had felt forgotten while labouring at Marseille prior to that move to Upton Park. He has been France’s most consistent attacking player at these finals.
Iceland were dizzied by it all. Their unity and commitment were never in doubt, their spirit retained as Kolbeinn Sigthorsson converted Gylfi Sigurdsson’s centre, but there was to be no recovery from those first-half deficiencies. “It was a mental thing,” said the departing joint-manager, Lars Lagerback. “We just didn’t use our brains or play our normal way. We weren’t sharp enough with our decision-making, were too passive and made silly mistakes.” They were vulnerable throughout. That much was clear when Giroud, leaping above Sverrir Ingason and Halldorsson to reach Payet’s free-kick, flicked in an easy fifth.
Yet France may not have similar joy against Germany. Their defence yielded again, through Birkir Bjarnason’s far-post header, to suggest frailty, and Hugo Lloris also conjured an astonishing save from Ingason’s point-blank attempt. Samuel Umtiti, on international debut, was several times stretched positionally, which may give the suspended Adil Rami a way back in Marseille. At least Iceland could depart with the game’s last goal. They have been magnificent at these finals but it is the French who can sense real reward.
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