France moves closer to lifting the Cup

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France Moves Closer to Lifting the Cup

by Chris Brown

It was nearly 7 months ago that France hosted World Champions Germany at the Stade de France in an international friendly on November 13th, 2015. What’s remembered about that match isn’t the score line or the football on display in Paris that evening, but the percussive sounds of explosions outside of France’s national stadium and the horror that would unravel in the following hours.

130 people lost their lives and another 368 were injured in the despicable act of terror that rocked Paris on that November evening. In the aftermath the world stood united by France in grief, disbelief and mourning.

When the French players came out of the tunnel at the Stade Velodrome in Marseille and stood together for the two team’s national anthems it’s impossible to know what was going through the player’s minds. Were they thinking of that terrible night in November? Thinking about the hours after that match, huddled together in the locker room, texting their families? Or were they focused on the task at hand, the World Champion German National Team.

When the opening notes of “La Marseillaise” played over the loudspeaker and the television cameras panned around the stadium, it was clear what was on the minds of the thousands of French fans in attendance. Linked arm in arm Marseille belted out the words to “La Marseillaise” in to their team. It was both beautiful and haunting, a deafening crescendo of what it means to be French in 2016. In the same way that the Kop at Anfield singing “You’ll Never Walk Alone” send shivers down the spine and brings tears to eyes, the French sang to and with their team.
Strong, resilient and proud.

From the opening whistle the French were just that.

 

French Football Federation & France National Team Logo

France advances to face Portugal in the Euro 2016 Final.

 

After an early French attack the team was pegged back into their own half for almost all of the opening 45 minutes.

The World Champs attacked playing their most dynamic and free flowing football of the tournament. The fullbacks for Die Mannshaft, Jonas Hector and Joshua Kimmich set up stations deep on the wings in French territory and Toni Kroos, Mesut Ozil and Emre Can, in for injured midfielder Sami Khedira, roamed freely, rotating from wing to wing and finding ample space at the top of the French 18 yard box. Thomas Muller shot just wide in the 13th minute and Can saw a shot saved by Hugo Lloris in the 14th. The French midfield chased German shadows and Kroos and Boateng sprayed passes all over Germany’s attacking half.

Boateng was particularly impressive, channeling his inner Franz Beckenbauer as he launched attacks from the halfway line. The French defense bent but didn’t break. They blocked several shots and Hugo Lloris, captaining his country, saved shots from Muller, Kroos and Ozil. The Germans should have found a lead in the opening half hour but squandered their opportunities.

The French back four got their tactics just right, playing narrow and giving up room on the flanks. Germany was able to get deep into the French wings but their crosses never looked to threaten Lloris’ goal.

Without Mario Gomez, who was injured in the quarterfinal against Italy, the World Champions didn’t have a focal point in attack. Gomez makes intelligent runs off the back shoulders of defenders and the Germany midfield operated around that dynamic this tournament. Without that threat, France stayed narrow, daring the Germans to cross the ball.

The match appeared to be heading into halftime scoreless, but as the halftime whistle approached France won a corner kick.
As the kick came in Germany Captain Bastian Schweinsteiger challenged for the ball with his hand unnaturally raised over his head. The ball seemed to hit his hand and Dimitri Payet’s head at the same time and a penalty was awarded to France.

The penalty decision seemed harsh but France had the chance they’d been waiting for. Antoine Griezmann capitalized, sending Manuel Neuer the wrong way and his penalty put France up one goal to nil at halftime.

The penalty seemed to unnerve the Germans because they came out as a different team in the second half. The free flowing attacking and pressing the Germans played with before the penalty kick was gone, replaced with labored passing, often too slow and sideways. Germany couldn’t move like they had in the first half and France, cheered on by the overwhelming French crowd, found a new hunger to press, disrupting the German offence.

France began to have decent counter attacking opportunities and the match opened up.

In the 59th minute the Germans were dealt a huge blow when center back Jerome Boateng had to leave the field with an injury. Boateng had to be helped off and looked desolate as he was replaced by Shkodran Mustafi in the 61st minute.

With Boateng out and Hummels suspended for yellow card accumulation, Germany were without the center back pairing that helped them lift the World Cup two years ago.

The absence of those two rocks in defense would haunt the World Champions when in the 72nd minute France would go up two goals to nil.
Paul Pogba found the ball at his feet on the side of the German box and stepping back, dangling his foot over the ball, dared Mustafi to take it from him. Mustafi took the bait and as he lunged into the tackle Pogba deftly moved the ball to his left foot and sent in a cross. The cross was poorly cleared by Manuel Neuer who came off his line and the ball landed at the feet of an onrushing Antoine Griezmann. The French forward poked the ball home, between Neuer’s legs, and Marseille erupted in cheers.

The Germans threw everything they had at France in the final 15 minutes, Joshua Kimmich saw a curling left footed effort hit the post and Lloris made several brilliant saves.

When the referee blew the final whistle it was France who went through to face Portugal in the final.

Germany will lament the opportunities they squandered in the first half and will curse their luck with injuries. Marco Reus and Ilkay Gundogan were ruled out prior to the tournament and being without Mario Gomez, Sami Khedira, Jerome Boateng and Mats Hummels certainly hurt Joachim Low’s side.

Ultimately it was France’s determination that decided the match. The German’s were the better side, but France was not to be beaten.
Coming into the tournament there were a lot of questions about the French team’s identity. How would they play? Were they like Portugal or Wales, a team built around a super star? And which Star? Would this be Paul Pogba’s team? Antoine Griezmann’s? After France’s first game both of those stars were benched, then was it Dimitri Payet’s team?

Tonight in Marseille, Les Bleus showed their true identity. They are France’s team. Each and every player united. This isn’t the French team from 2010 and this isn’t a team in the pocket of a superstar. This team has spectacular players, good players, older players and some young potential, but they found a way to be greater than the sum of their parts.

This European Championship has had several great stories and surprises. Iceland, the ultimate minnow, Wales, a team with great heart and pride, but France may be the greatest story of all.

Human life is precious and so much more important than a game or tournament. There’s no cure for the pain and loss inflicted in Paris last November, but if France can find one more win, on Sunday against Portugal, Didier Deschamps men will have made their country proud. A France win would have people celebrating in the streets, parading past the Arc de Triomphe down the Champs-Elysees with smiles on their faces.

It’s how the world would prefer to see Paris.

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