Antoine Griezmann makes most of his opportunities against Germany as France continue to rise
France 2 Germany 0
France Griezmann (pen) 45’, 72’
MARSEILLE // For France, it really is beginning to feel just like 1998 all over again.
Their home European championship has caught the imagination of the nation as their own World Cup did at the end of the last century. Les Bleus are turning beautiful in the eyes of a sceptical public.
France may have begun Euro 2016, sluggish, tepid at the beginnings of all their games. Now it looks as if they were simply pacing themselves, planning all the while to hit their peak when they needed to.
The real test will be in Saint-Denis on Sunday, against Portugal. France go the final as favourites having knocked out the world champions, Germany, in front of a buoyant, rousing crowd in Marseille.
They proved a few points in winning their semi-final, 2-0, not the least of which was to show they have come on as team, and as a squad, in the two years since Germany beat les Bleus 1-0 in the World Cup quarter-final.
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France manager Didier Deschamps will certainly see some echoes of 1998 in the way France have come to the boil in this competition. He was captain of the France who triumphed in a tight contest with Croatia in the semi-final of that year’s World Cup, with France’s two goals coming from one man, the defender Lilian Thuram.
Antoine Griezmann is a far more established goalscorer than Thuram was, but there were doubts, in the group phase matches, about Griezmann’s stamina and his readiness to live with the pressures of being his country’s star striker here. He has six goals now, after his double dethroned the Germans.
‘Grizou’ is the star, alright, and in the kind of form to measure up on Sunday squarely to Cristiano Ronaldo, his opponent barely seven weeks ago, when Griezmann’s Atletico Madrid played Ronaldo’s Real Madrid in the Uefa Champions League final.
The second Griezmann goal epitomised how France grew in the contest.
Its engineer was Paul Pogba, whose tigerish hassling of Joshua Kimmich, the young German full-back, and fine cross left German’s defence uncertain, undermanned. Griezmann picked up a soft clearanvce to stab a shot past Neuer.
That was the first from open play Germany have let in in six matches here, one of which lasted a full 120 minutes. That hermetic defence ought to be enough to push a side most of the way to a final. But Germany were a little blunt up front.
Without Mario Gomez, injured, they lacked a prominent spearhead. Their central striker against France, Thomas Muller leaves the championship without a goal. Germany did try to chase a way back from 2-0 down and Kimmich curled a shot onto Lloris’s post, but they will go home to some severe questions, many directed at head coach Jogi Low, about their lack of cutting edge.
And what Germany have not been while in France is careful about where they put their hands. Jerome Boateng’s handball while defending a high ball into his penalty area cost them a penalty against Italy in their quarter-final, and eroded their lead in that match.
Against France, their captain was penalised for the same thing. Jumping with the diminutive Patrice Evra as a France corner floated in, Bastian Schweinsteiger flapped out an arm, not intending, it seemed, to use it to clear the danger, but raising it nonetheless. There was illegal contact with ball and it was spotted.
Once Griezmann converted the consequent penalty, and referee Nicola Rizzoli – having heard some hot protestations from various German players – had immediately blown the whistle for half-time, France could barely believe their good fortune.
Their menace until that point had been limited to a couple of direct free-kicks, from Dmitri Payet and Paul Pogba, neither of which required Neuer to extend himself. Olivier Giroud had set off one promising break but his lack of acceleration, never a forte, could not turn the promise into anything tangible.
Germany, by contrast, had put on a gradual, suffocating squeeze in the first 45 minutes. They had the majority stake of the possession, and although their passing was not always perfect, built enough momentum to let the thought creep in that it was merely a matter of time until the pressure paid dividends.
France had Hugo Lloris to thank for keeping out an Emre Can drive, the defender Samuel Umtiti to shower gratitude on for a bold intervention to snuff out a Muller chance.
For Umtiti, the past week seems like dream. He only made his international debut last Sunday and will now anticipate keeping his place in the XI for the final.
He, like Les Bleus, has risen fast, at just the right time. Paris awaits, expecting France to soar still higher.
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Updated: July 8, 2016 04:00 AM