How quickly things can unravel. How quickly things can change.
At half-time in the Parc Olympique Lyonnais, Ireland’s population spent 15 minutes pinching themselves and each other. Martin O’Neill’s side weren’t just ahead against the hosts and tournament favourites, they had merited the ascendancy earned through Robbie Brady’s early penalty. France were rattled, struggling to create chances and booed off by their support.
Ten minutes was all it took. Ten minutes between Antoine Griezmann’s superb equaliser and Shane Duffy’s straight red card, the bread in a sh*tty sandwich; Griezmann’s winning goal was the filling. Ireland have enjoyed a four-game tournament, one more than the most realistic of predictions, but they will go no further.
After the embarrassment of Euro 2012, this was a tournament for Ireland to raise its head higher. The Belgium defeat was disappointing, but in their final two matches O’Neill and Roy Keane produced performances greater than the sum of the team’s parts. Over half of the team that started against France played in the Championship last season. Eight of France’s starting XI played in the Champions League.
If there is no shame in this Irish defeat, there should be no regret either. Ireland’s organisation was lacking in the second half, particularly after the heroic defending towards the end of the first period. They were bunched centrally for the first goal, and lost Griezmann for the second. Yet having four fewer days to recuperate than their opponents was always likely to take its toll; players were out on their feet in the final ten minutes. No player left anything on the pitch.
In the end, individual class made the difference. Didier Deschamps has still not found the answer to his midfield issues, although Paul Pogba looked far better alongside Blaise Matuidi after N’Golo Kante was substituted. Deschamps was assisted not through his own tactical nuance nor half-time inspiration, but the brilliance of Griezmann.
Away from the glamour of Real Madrid and Barcelona, it’s easy to overlook Griezmann as one of the superstars of Spanish football. Atletico coach Diego Simeone pays his own tribute: “Griezmann clearly has a lot of talent. He has worked very hard, pushed himself and knows how to listen. The best way to improve in any job is to listen. Without doubt he is one of the best three players in the world.”
For France too, Griezmann has been slightly pushed from centre stage due to the controversy over Karim Benzema and the perma-noise that surrounds Pogba. No longer.
After scoring 32 times from a central position for Atletico last season, Griezmann has been used as a wide forward by Deschamps for France, operating to the right of Olivier Giroud. That utilises Griezmann’s dribbling ability and pace, but negates much of his effectiveness in the penalty area. For a player who stands only 5’9”, his strength and heading ability are easily ignored. Like Lionel Messi, Griezmann also possesses that wonderful ability to ride challenges and bumps like a slalom skier, immediately correcting himself to retain perfect balance.
When France needed him most, Griezmann delivered spectacularly. His eight shots were more than any other player on the pitch, and his five shots on target was two fewer than every other player on the pitch combined. After half-time, Griezmann drifted infield to demand the ball in the second half, and both of France’s goals came when he was allowed to stay central. The best players rise to face adversity and challenge it head on.
More importantly for France is how Griezmann is able to influence play despite playing so high up the field. His 88 touches against Ireland was only three fewer than Pogba (the highest number on the pitch), and no player in the match made more tackles. That’s mightily impressive from someone typically operating in the final third. Deschamps is benefiting from the Simeone ‘all-action’ influence.
Even after playing four tournament games, there are still as many questions as answers regarding Deschamps’ ability to get the best out of a potentially magnificent midfield and attack. France’s coach is fortunate that, in the case of Griezmann, instruction is hardly needed.
Any formation and strategy that lets Atletico Madrid’s superstar do his thing is likely to be the best bet. France now head back to Paris for their quarter-final. There is no doubt who was their Lyon king.