PARIS – Just as Euro 2016's opening match was threatening to end in with an anti-climactic draw, Dimitri Payet delivered what may wind up being one of the competition's signature moments.
The West Ham United midfielder's 89th-minute left-footed blast delivered a 2-1 win to France over Romania at the Stade de France and brought a host nation to its feet. Payet, used here on the left, was a slightly controversial selection ahead of Anthiny Martial, but he was by far France’s best player on the night, and, just when something special was required, he conjured a shot of startling quality, arrowed into the top corner from the edge of the box.
And so the tournament, and France, the tournament host and overwhelming favorite, is up and running.
France had battered on the Romanian door for almost an hour before finally finding a goal but, having taken the lead through Olivier Giroud, it was pegged back by a needless penalty converted by Bogdan Stancu. Frustration was just setting in when Payet struck, sparing manager Didier Deschamps some awkward chatter about drawing positives form a performance that was just about good enough while still offering a number of reasons for concern.
The opening ceremony had been the familiar hallucinatory melange of local color: some shrubs, some lips, some accordions, some can-can dancers and a merry-go-round on which DJ David Guetta presided. The high point, of course, was La Marseillaise, a stirring anthem at any time, but all the more so following the massacre in Paris last November, after which its message of defiance has taken on additional poignancy. It was sung with great pride and gusto.
There was no overt mention of terror attacks, but they are the unspoken backdrop to the tournament. Every security check–of which there are many, every siren, every police van, every television camera outside the Bataclan Theater–offers a reminder of the atrocity that left 130 dead and 368 injured.
As news broke throughout the evening of fighting in Marseille between English fans, Russian fans, locals and police, France and Romania played out a strange game that contained much both coaches would have found encouraging and yet was littered with errors. Although Giroud did open the scoring eventually, with his eight goals in his last six starts for France, he had also wasted a number of chances. Paul Pogba’s contribution was sporadic, and he was understandably withdrawn with quarter of an hour to go for Anthony Martial in what seemed like a substitution designed to make a point. Defensively, France was shaky, Patrice Evra in particular.
But N’Golo Kante was as good as he has been all season, scurrying and tackling and passing with the energy of two men, while Payet, endlessly inventive and elegant, not merely justified his selection on the left but was by far France’s most creative player. Romania, meanwhile, was what it is: it defended well, took its chance and but for an extraordinary early miss by the goalscorer, Stancu, and a goalkeeping error from Ciprian Tatarusanu, might have got an even better result.
The expectation had been that Romania, which conceded only two goals in 10 qualifying games, would be dour, looking to frustrate France, much as it had in Zurich in a group game at Euro 2008. In the end, that was how it turned out, but first there was a first five minutes in which a skittish France threatened to let Romania in. When a fourth-minute corner was flicked on at the near post, Stancu had most of the goal to aim at, four yards out at the back post, but put the ball close enough to Hugo Lloris for France’s captain to make a remarkable save.
From then on, though, it was a game of French pressure. Romania’s back four played very narrow, with the wide midfielders filling in so there was often an arc of six outfielders across the back, with Ovidiu Hoban and Mihai Pintilii filling the space in front. France labored. Twice Giroud wasted decent opportunities, and Antoine Griezmann headed against the post and put a sharp first-time shot just wide.
And while the host grew increasingly frustrated going forward, it looked ragged at the back, something only partly explicable by the absence of three high-class central defenders. Two minutes into the second half, Romania almost took advantage, Nicolae Stanciu left in space to float a ball over the back line for Stancu, who took it down well on his chest but scuffed his volley wide.
Payet looked the France player most likely to open Romania up. His through-ball found Giroud’s run after 52 minutes, but the forward hit his shot straight at Tatarusanu. Four minutes later, Payet worked another opening and crossed for Pogba to volley a shot from the edge of the box that Tatarusanu kept out with his legs. But the goal was coming and it arrived after 57 minutes, Payet, inevitably, floating in a cross that Giroud headed in, having out-muscled Tatarusanu.
At that point, France seemed on its way to a comfortable victory, but its defensive raggedness cost it. Patrice Evra had been poor from the offset, but his trip on Stanciu was both bizarre and foolish, conceding a penalty that Stancu gleefully converted.
Romania looked to have done enough to earn a point and France seemed deflated. But then, from nowhere, came Payet’s thunderbolt. A brilliant goal, certinaly, but the worry is perhaps that France needs brilliance because, for now, it lacks cohesion.