Sunday, July 03, 2016
SAINT-DENIS, France -- Three quick thoughts from France's 5-2 win over Iceland in the Euro 2016 quarterfinals.
1. Stylish France get the job done early
How intimidating a benchmark this really was might be hard to tell, but France have found some fluency and might just find they are peaking at the right time. This was a straightforward quarterfinal win over underdogs who had their moments but could not muster up the resolve that defeated England; Germany will provide a far sterner test in Marseille, but the psychological boost that this gives the hosts could yet be decisive.
France had been slow starters in their previous four games, and never more so than when they went a goal down within three minutes against Ireland in the round of 16. A slightly tweaked side, with Samuel Umtiti and Moussa Sissoko coming in for the suspended Adil Rami and N'Golo Kante, looked to make life rather more straightforward here.
They got the early goal they craved, and it was one of startling simplicity. Olivier Giroud was just about onside as he ran onto a chipped ball down the left by Blaise Matuidi, centre-back Kari Arnason protesting to no avail, and with Iceland's back four floundering, the Arsenal striker ran through to lace a crisp shot through the legs of Hannes Halldorsson. Defence and goalkeeper could have done better, but France now had a chance to cut loose.
It was duly taken before the 20-minute mark had been reached, and again they did not have to work especially hard for their reward. The source of Paul Pogba's goal, his first of Euro 2016, was an in-swinging corner from the right by Antoine Griezmann. Pogba, running onto the delivery and getting a towering leap on a flat-footed Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, powered his header into the bottom corner and you could not help thinking that was that.
Any lingering doubts were erased when Dimitri Payet, with a daisy-cutter from 20 yards after Griezmann teed him up, made it three in the 43rd minute. France smelt blood and ended the game as any form of contest on the stroke of half-time. A low Umtiti ball bypassed the midfield all too easily and was dummied by Giroud, completely taking Arnason out of the equation. Griezmann sprinted clear and there was only one outcome from there: a cool dink over Halldorsson for his fourth goal of the tournament.
To their credit, Iceland emerged for the second period unbowed. They scored a deserved consolation when Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, who had netted the winner against England, diverted a Gylfi Sigurdsson delivery past Hugo Lloris. Giroud beat a floundering Halldorsson to a Payet free kick shortly afterwards, restoring the four-goal margin. Remarkably Iceland would still have the final say, Birkir Bjarnason heading home Ari Skulason's cross late on as they kept on coming at the hosts, but the job had long since been done.
2. Iceland bow out but refuse to go quietly
Iceland were never going to go quietly. Their second-half goals meant little in the wider scheme of things but were timely reminders of something else: that this remarkable team, however things are falling for them, will keep on going. Their supporters, in wonderful voice throughout, have plenty to hold onto from the evening now; another pair of snapshots to add to a summer of memories that could fill a lifetime.
Nobody wanted it to end quite like this, but when the regret fades they will go home brimming with pride. The prospect of continuing their fairytale was all but extinguished in the first quarter, and by half-time it was damage limitation, but the bigger picture is that their Euro 2016 was a resounding, unprecedented success.
The noises coming out of the Icelandic camp during the week had suggested that they had more to offer after their defeat of England, particularly going forward. Perhaps, to an extent, it was their eagerness to begin expansively that did them in. While Iceland popped the ball around nicely early on and actually started the better of the two sides -- Bjarnason and Gylfi Sigurdsson both having early sights of goal before Giroud scored -- they were noticeably more open than in previous games and it came at the expense of defensive aggression. Matuidi's game-unlocking pass caught their defence, particularly right-back Birkir Saevarsson, far too high and there was a looseness about the following four goals too.
If Bodvarsson had kept his close-range effort down at 2-0 after an Aron Gunnarsson long throw had caused havoc then they may have run France closer; if Lloris had not saved spectacularly from Ragnar Sigurdsson's header much later, there would have been a further consolation to savour. Iceland were not without opportunities but fell short on some of the basics this time.
Knowing the rare ambition and single-mindedness of these Iceland players, they will be sitting in the dressing room in desolation. The lapses that let the game get away from them were certainly uncharacteristic. But when the dust settles there can be no disappointment at all, not really. What they have achieved in France will never be forgotten.
3. France's big weapons all come good
Those early goals helped, but France played with a clear-headedness that bodes well for the sterner tests ahead. This was an exercise in control from the 20th minute onward and Didier Deschamps' side held Iceland off in comfort despite some defensive sloppiness after the break.
Perhaps most encouraging of all for the French is that their biggest weapons are all chipping in regularly. While it quickly became apparent that this would be a good opportunity to rack up a few personal goal tallies, it bodes well that Giroud, Griezmann and Payet were all clinical here.
The trio now have 10 goals between them this summer and appear to be in a four-way shootout with Gareth Bale for the Golden Boot. All three have come good with decisive goals at crucial times; this was Giroud's turn and his early strike blunted an Iceland side that had set out intent to impose itself on the game.
It was also encouraging to see the desire with which Pogba, who was criticised earlier in the tournament and started France's second group game on the bench, threw himself at the ball -- and Bodvarsson -- to double their lead. France have been missing a moment of genuine inspiration from the Juventus midfielder and although that would be a generous definition here, the goal will have done him no harm. He was never going to be beaten to Griezmann's corner, just as a cohesive France were never really going to be beaten in this game.
Nick Ames is a football journalist who writes for ESPN FC, the Guardian, FourFourTwo and the Blizzard, among others. Twitter: @NickAmes82.