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Griezmann, Pogba and France prove power, as magnificent minnows give way

July 4, 2016 6:14 AM
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Iceland can welcome a tenth of its population back. The great retreat across much of the Atlantic was prompted by the highest-scoring game of Euro 2016. Were another country on the receiving end of such a result, it would be called a humiliation.

France took a wrecking ball to the side from Reykjavik. Icelanders cracked. Hosts delivered a statement of intent in a tournament that has had too few.

Instead, much of the drama has come from the improbable antics of the unlikely. Iceland have provided the most uplifting tale of Euro 2016. They have earned the admiration of many. They can leave with pride.

They have shown that underdogs can prevail in a sport where favourites’ progress often feels preordained.

They have provided a role model to many another small nation, with an investment in coaching and pitches, with intelligent management, a formidable team spirit and a style that suited their players. They fostered dreams and encouraged dreamers. They lured some 30,000 of their population to France.

Iceland had beaten Netherlands, Turkey and the Czech Republic in qualifying, Austria and England in the tournament itself. They had angered Cristiano Ronaldo by having the temerity to draw with Portugal.

Yet sooner or later, reality was bound to bite. It duly did, cruelly and clinically.

Iceland were eviscerated. France were fantastic. There was a gulf in class, as there ought to be. France’s second goal was supplied by Antoine Griezmann, a Champions League finalist this year, and scored by Paul Pogba, who played in the same fixture 12 months earlier. Their combined value approaches £200 million (Dh973m).

Griezmann showed why he is so highly rated. Few attackers have made a compelling case to be called Euro 2016’s stand-out player but he is a welcome exception. The Atletico Madrid forward scored one goal, with a dink worthy of Lionel Messi, and created two more. He is now the leader in the Golden Boot race with two of his teammates, along with Wales’ Gareth Bale, proving his closest competition.

Dimitri Payet drilled in his third goal of the tournament a minute before Griezmann delivered his fourth.

Olivier Giroud supplied a double, accelerating France’s transition from slow starters to the first team to score four goals in the opening half of a European Championship finals game. Despite his enduring capacity to polarise opinions, the statistics suggest Giroud has an importance. His last nine starts for his country have yielded 10 goals. He was substituted to ensure he did not collect the caution that would have ruled him out of the semi-final against Germany.

Then Pogba towered above Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and headed in Antoine Griezmann’s corner. Payet and Griezmann turned two goals into four in a matter of minutes. Iceland were routed, though their fans were never silenced.

Perhaps the team Ronaldo accused of excessive defensiveness should have been duller. Iceland’s progressive approach surprised England. It backfired against France.

Their defensive line was too high when their offside trap was sprung by Blaise Matuidi for Giroud’s opener. They had scored from a set-piece six days earlier; this time they conceded from one as Pogba headed in Griezmann’s corner.

They became the first team to name the same starting 11 for five consecutive games in the Euros. They looked tired, understandable exhausted by their efforts to date.

They had to make a double change at half-time. It was testament to their character, however, that they maintained their record of scoring in every game. Kolbeinn Sigthorsson stuck out a toe to turn Gylfi Sigurdsson’s cross in. After the nostalgic gesture of sending the 37-year-old Eidur Gudjohnsen on for what may prove a valedictory cameo, Birkir Bjarnason headed in a second.

Such French defending may offer encouragement for Germany, though Laurent Koscielny, another a booking away from a ban, had gone off by then as Didier Deschamps took precautions.

The France manager retained the 4-4-2 formation that worked so well in the second half against the Republic of Ireland, which had the benefit of allowing Griezmann a central role and spared him the task of finding a direct replacement for the suspended defensive midfielder N’Golo Kante. France have been far more prolific in his absence.

Perhaps Deschamps has found his system and his style. Perhaps he will require more conservatism against Germany.

That promises to be a clash of the superpowers. In contrast, Iceland were Euro 2016’s magnificent minnows.


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