Deschamps’s actions save France against Ireland, yet frail defence will need more protection
Vive la France. But only after Didier Deschamps had to revive la France. The hosts were 45 minutes away from being ejected from their own party. Euro 2016 was threatened with an unexpected, destabilising “Frexit”. France stared into the abyss and saw something that rendered their immediate future happier: spirit, a tactical rethink, a place in the quarter-finals.
The Republic of Ireland deservedly led at the break. France could have been the first of the superpowers to be eliminated, without even facing any of their supposed peers. They were being tested, and they were failing an examination by the energetic. Hassled, harried, with concerns about their defence being highlighted and questions if their manager knew his best team, they looked disjointed and disappointing.
Then Deschamps acted. Ireland’s defeat was directly attributable to a nine-minute display of the destructiveness of Antoine Griezmann. He scored twice. Shane Duffy, unable to halt him legally, chopped him down and was sent off.
Yet his manager created the conditions for the comeback. Deschamps removed his booked ball-winner, N’Golo Kante. Blaise Matuidi, a muted figure who seemed lucky to still be on the pitch, duly improved.
More from Euro 2016:
• Richard Jolly on England: Knockout failures face ignominy if they fail to negotiate way past Iceland
• Euro 2016 talking points: Sluggish Portugal through; Gareth Bale the difference against Northern Ireland
• Euro 2016 section: All the latest news, match reports, analysis, reaction and much more in one place
He brought on Kingsley Coman to add pace on the right. Griezmann was relocated into a central role. He combined superbly with Olivier Giroud. Striking is a national pastime in France and, with two strikers, France scored two goals.
Each was a case of pressure telling. Ireland retreated, France advanced. Bacary Sagna crossed, Griezmann headed home. Then Giroud drew two defenders away and supplied a flick-on and Griezmann drilled in his second.
It was typical of a tournament where few forwards have flourished throughout that he became the joint top scorer. Like many another attacker, like France, Griezmann has performed in fits and spurts.
But this was an indication of how, and why, he scored 32 times for Atletico Madrid this season. So, too, when he escaped the Irish defence, a desperate Duffy fouled him and Martin O’Neill’s side were reduced to 10 men.
Giroud was Griezmann’s supplier again. The eventual verdict may yet be that Deschamps erred in omitting Alexandre Lacazette and Kevin Gameiro from his squad but the target men he preferred prospered. Andre-Pierre Gignac rattled the bar in his cameo.
Judgment day has been postponed. Deschamps, meanwhile, has more decisions to make for Sunday’s quarter-final against England or Iceland. Both Kante and Adil Rami are suspended. France’s already frail rearguard is further depleted with the loss of a fifth centre-back.
The sense they have a soft underbelly was apparent in the first half and camouflaged in the second as they performed with greater intensity and urgency.
Events in between have the potential to prove a tipping point. France had spectacular goals in the group stage, courtesy of Dimitri Payet, but rarely performed with the coherence of possible champions. Their campaign lacked a defining moment or the semblance of a masterplan. The up-tempo, more attacking approach supplied in a second half when Paul Pogba was rampant may offer one, certainly in Kante’s absence. Perhaps Deschamps found a formula. At the least, France have given themselves a chance to grow into the tournament.
Ireland must retreat from it. The eventual scoreline flattered them, given the French domination after the break. Yet it began so promisingly. Robbie Brady, rapidly emerging as a talisman, converted a penalty awarded after 60 seconds when Shane Long, Ireland’s incessant nuisance, was clumsily tripped by Pogba. He had excelled on the left of a midfield trio against Switzerland. Restored to his less favoured position on the right, he immediately erred.
France were frustrated, further annoyed by Irish defiance. On the stroke of half-time, first Payet and then Griezmann shot and a host of Ireland defenders flung themselves in the way to attempt blocks. Their commitment to the cause knew no bounds.
It was not enough. Seven years after Ireland were defeated by Thierry Henry’s infamous “Hand of Gaul”, the decisions of Deschamps made the difference.
Follow us on Twitter @NatSportUAE
Like us on Facebook at facebook.com/TheNationalSport
Updated: June 26, 2016 04:00 AM