This feature is a part of RETEUROSPECTIVE
France emerged victorious, at the close of a 5-2 stunner against Iceland, in one of Euro 2016’s most memorable matches. The host nation secured their place in the semi-finals in a rain-soaked Saint-Denis, albeit with a far from perfect performance against a resilient Iceland side.
The quarter-final encounter began at a high tempo, with both sides testing their opposing goalkeepers early on. Iceland, fresh from their giant-killing triumph against England, were full of confidence, with Gylfi Sigurðsson shooting straight at Hugo Lloris as early as the third minute. At the other end, Dimitri Payet’s shot was safely smothered by Hannes Þór Halldórsson, as France began to highlight their wealth of attacking talent.
Despite the game’s initial even balance, it was the hosts who took the lead in the 12th minute. Blaise Matuidi’s beautiful pass drifted over the Iceland back four to find Olivier Giroud, who rifled the ball home from the left-hand side of the penalty area.
Eight minutes later, the French advantage was doubled. An Antoine Griezmann corner found its way to Paul Pogba, whose towering, unstoppable header flew into the net. Pogba dabbed as the players and fans celebrated wildly, filling the stadium with the roars of La Marseillaise. The party had well and truly started, as France now had one foot in the semi-finals.
Iceland never gave up, however. They continued to threaten their opponents, particularly from long throw-ins, which had caused England a similar level of unease in their previous game. In the 25th minute, the ball was headed onto Jón Daði Böðvarsson, but he was unable to capitalise on the chance.
The Icelandic fans continued to spur their team on, as their famous clapping routine boomed around the Stade de France. Despite being allowed plenty of possession, Iceland created very little, and as the clock entered the 43rd minute, it looked as though both teams would enter the dressing rooms with the scoreline at 2-0.
However, a dramatic final few minutes sent the assembled French fans into raptures. Payet had looked lively the entire first half and was rewarded for his performance with a goal. Again assisted by Griezmann, Payet bought himself space with his first touch before shooting into the right-hand corner with his weak foot.
Griezmann then turned from provider into goalscorer, notching a remarkable goal. A sensational dummy from Giroud confused the Icelandic back four but, crucially, not Griezmann, who was on Giroud’s wavelength and quickly charged through on goal and dinked the ball over the goalkeeper with the deftest of chips.
Though far from perfect, France found themselves 4-0 up; perhaps already thinking about the semi-finals. Iceland looked stunned, meanwhile, with some fans holding their heads in their hands. It had been a humiliating first half for a team that, despite their underdog status, had promised so much more.
As the second half began, Iceland sent on striker Alfreð Finnbogason to try to salvage something. France happily sat off, leaving Iceland in possession as they looked to counter. This proved to be a dangerous strategy, however, as it exposed France’s defensive frailties, something which they will surely need to address if they are to go on and contest this tournament to the bitter end.
It took Iceland just ten second-half minutes to unlock France’s defence. Sigurðsson’s assist was tucked away by Kolbeinn Sigþórsson, as the Iceland players rallied. There was no time for celebrations as the Icelandic players grabbed the ball from the back of the net and ran toward their half once more, confident they were back in the game.
Any hopes of a comeback were dashed, though, just three minutes later, extinguished by poor Icelandic defending. A seemingly innocuous French set-piece resulted in a Giroud goal, the product of some erroneous goalkeeping. The hosts’ four-goal lead was restored, and La Marseillaise rang out once again.
There was still more to come, though. Lloris was called into action in the 63rd minute, making a tremendous save to deny Sverrir Ingi Ingason a certain goal from point-blank range. A testament to Lloris’ shot-stopping ability, it will surely go down as one of the finest saves of the competition.
Griezmann continued to probe at the other end, beating three Icelandic defenders brilliantly on the counter, but his pass to André-Pierre Gignac came to nothing. The game slowly fizzled out after this chance. Iceland boasted as much as 72 percent of the possession as the game drew to a close, but managed to create very little with the ball.
That was until the 83rd minute, when Iceland were rewarded for their persistence with another goal. Birkir Bjarnason scored a header, to give Iceland a second goal against the tournament-favourites, something which the fans and players will be extremely proud of once their disappointment subsides.
Iceland continued to press until the final whistle but were powerless to deny France victory. Their fairy-tale run at UEFA Euro 2016 is over, to the neutral fan’s chagrin. Yet, thanks to their energy and resilience in spite of their underdog status, they will go down in European Championship history as a paragon of the spirit that football is all about.
France, meanwhile, march onto the semi-finals, where they will need to show greater defensive integrity if they are to beat Germany and reach the final. Conversely, France’s goal threat is more potent than ever before. The in-form trio of Griezmann, Giroud and Payet continue to dazzle and will be crucial in France’s chances of winning the tournament, should defensive misgivings let them down.
For all their attacking prowess, Pogba shone brightest for France in a man of the match performance. His work rate put him at the centre of everything France did, both up-front and in defence, while his goal showed that he is more than just your run-of-the-mill defensive midfielder.
With rumours of his return to Manchester United this summer, the Red Devils could have a truly world-class player in their midfield, should the Frenchman choose to return to his former club.
By James Caple @CapesJE