This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
Now the party can truly get started. Michel Platini, France’s elegant and masterful playmaker, stamped his authority on this tournament with a hat-trick in Les Bleus’ magnificent performance against Belgium at the Stade de la Beaujoire in Nantes.
Platini, the runaway winner of the European Footballer of the Year award, may have stolen the headlines but this was a splendid team performance. France moved effortlessly up through the gears after their nervy opener against Denmark four days ago to emphatically serve notice of their tournament credentials.
Belgium, the runners-up in 1980, were simply overwhelmed, struggling to cope with the carré magique French midfield who utterly dominated the proceedings. In fact, it was a slightly adjusted five-man midfield on this occasion for France, with the absence of the suspended Manuel Amoros causing a rejig in the French ranks, but it was no less an effective unit.
Far from being weakened, however, their midfield dominance was the platform form which the French attack was unleashed with devastating consequences.
Platini was the main instigator against Belgium, having already scored rather fortuitously in the 1-0 win over Denmark despite having been effectively shackled throughout by defender Klaus Berggreen. He drifted from one wing to the other, seeking the ball and causing a panic wherever he went, leaving his opponents disorientated and unable to cope. Alain Giresse, that diminutive dynamo in the centre of the field, was a never-ending bundle of energy and his tireless efforts helped pull the strings, complementing Platini’s headline act perfectly.
France, playing in white on this occasion, took the lead as early as the fourth minute, when a rocket free-kick from Patrick Battiston thudded against the woodwork, rebounded through a crowded defence for Platini. He sidestepped a couple of befuddled defenders before calmly sending a fierce shot of his own into the corner of Jean-Marie Pfaff’s goal.
Even before this, France could have grabbed the lead with the Belgian defence scrambling to clear a cross from Didier Six, with Platini posed to head home. After the attacking difficulties of their opening match, this goal seemed to relieve the pressure on the hosts. The pent-up energy and vibrance was released; the cork freed, and the bubbles of joy simply overflowed.
When Giresse added a fine second after 33 minutes, a one-two with Jean Tigana setting him up to neatly chip Jean-Marie Pfaff in the Belgian goal, it was no less than the French deserved.
There was time for another goal before the interval too as Giresse turned creator, picking up an overhit Luis Fernández cross and centring it back to the now unmarked Fernández to head home, amidst a euphoric atmosphere in the stands. France only eased off marginally in the second half, but two goals in the last quarter of an hour gave their captain his hat-trick and gave France an astonishing 5-0 victory.
First, Platini scored from nonchalantly from the penalty spot after Six had been brought down following a fine interchange between him and Bernard Genghini, before Platini added the fifth near the end, leaping high to head in Giresse’s lofted cross.
Belgium had briefly threatened, notably when Michel De Wolf hit a post with the score only at 1-0, and Erwin Vandenbergh later squandering a very presentable headed opportunity. Jan Ceulemans also forced Joel Bats in the French goal into action, but the threat was always kept at arm’s length. Belgium will need to regroup and go again in what may turn out to be a straight knock-out match with Denmark for a place in the semi-finals alongside France.
As the Tricolore flags waved in celebration in the stands, France have truly served notice here of their ambitions in this tournament. With majestic form like this they will prove difficult to stop, and in Platini they have the potential star of the tournament. His casual, languid elegance, dictating the play with a swagger, is France’s inspiration, but there is talent aplenty alongside their majestic genius which may yet push France towards the glory they so cruelly missed out on in the World Cup semi-final of 1982.
Platini’s four goals in two games so far have easily propelled him to the top of the scoring charts, and with such a stellar supporting cast, there is little to doubt that the chances will keep on coming that could carry Les Bleus all the way to their first international trophy in two weeks’ time.
By Aidan Williams @yad_williams