At one point of the last quarter-final of Euro 2016 on Sunday, a quite serious case of déjà vu befell the Stade de France. The hosts had taken an early lead against Iceland through Olivier Giroud, but promptly conceded a throw-in within seconds of the restart. Iceland’s weapon of pass destruction was primed, as Aron Gunnarsson launched the ball into the penalty area. We had seen this script before.
France cleared with ease, and had doubled their lead within seven minutes. Unlike England six days earlier, they were ready. They were organised, diligent, professional. They were aware not only of the danger Iceland posed, but of the considerable threat they themselves boasted. As timid as Roy Hodgson’s side were as they exited the tournament on Monday, France were irresistible as they progressed to a semi-final meeting with Germany. They could even afford to give Eliaquim Mangala 20 minutes.
Many a finger has been pointed, many an exclusive has been revealed and many a scapegoat has been identified in the aftermath of England’s humiliating defeat to Iceland, but this was the most embarrassing and the most stark development. The long throw that carved through a defence earlier in the week was countered at each attempt. The midfield which was comfortable in the face of welcoming opposition was thoroughly dominated. The high defensive line which held a supposedly elite array of attacking talent at arm’s length for 87 minutes was exposed time and time again. France faced the exact same side, the exact same manager and the exact same tactics that sprang a shock on a superior team just days prior, yet they exposed Iceland as the hard-working but limited outfit they are.
Had the minnows’ exertions in the previous round been their undoing? “A little bit of fatigueness creeping into Iceland’s play,” noted Glenn Hoddle during the first half. They were certainly not as energetic, but it was a ‘fatigueness’ which France exploited. They made 17 tackles; England had made 11. They made 15 interceptions; England made seven. France were relentless and devastating, like a lion hunting its prey. England had been content waiting for someone else to feed them.
But to anglicise this victory too much ignores just how brilliant France were in the first half. Before this quarter-final, they had not scored a single goal in the first 45 minutes of any of their previous four games. They were disjointed against Romania and Albania, and somewhat fortunate against Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland, but produced the best display of any side so far in the tournament in Paris. Hugo Lloris led from the back. Samuel Umtiti, on his international debut, completed 100 per cent of his 76 passes, and no player made more clearances (seven). Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi provided the perfect blend of power and poise, while Moussa Sissoko was excellent – until asked to shoot or pass in the final third.
Then the forwards. Olivier Giroud had 27 touches; he scored with two of them, and assisted another with a third. For comparison, Harry Kane (the last mention of England, I promise) had 54 touches on Monday. No player completed more tackles than the Arsenal forward (four), and no-one facilitated France’s attacking play to such a wonderful extent. His backing singers, Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet, were a delight to watch, and could be the two individuals vying to be named Player of the Tournament in a week’s time.
France scored four completely different types of goals in the first half, ranging from a direct ball over the top finished well, to a header from a corner, to an expertly-placed effort from outside the box, to a through ball culminating in a delightful chip. After performances ranking on a scale from underwhelming to unspectacular in the group stage and last 16, the hosts finally announced themselves in front of a raucous home support who had been made to wait too long. Perhaps the most enviable and rounded squad finally lived up to their reputation.
As for Iceland, their journey ends here, but they have produced lasting memories both on the pitch and in the stands. Lars Lagerback’s side refused to cower against a truly world-class outfit, attacking from kick-off and registering the first shot of the game through Gylfi Sigurdsson. When most sides would be shell-shocked after being victims of such an efficient and incisive first-half display, Iceland continued to battle. Their two goals are the first France have conceded from open play this summer. Few will deny that they are a limited side; fewer still can doubt their spirit and work ethic. And their fans added so much to the spectacle yet again. They were delightful throughout.
But all fairytales come to an end, and not all of them have a Leicester-style conclusion. It is France who set up a meeting with Germany in the final four. After pillaging the vikings, they must prove themselves capable of conquering the world champions. The ingredients are certainly in place.