France times its rise to perfection
MARSEILLE, France (AP) After a hellish year, France is just one step away from football heaven.
What better way to get there than by downing the world champions and France's nemesis for over half a century: Germany.
A 2-0 European Championship semifinal victory for Les Bleus in the city that lent its name to the French national anthem showed that France is back as a major footballing force for the first time since Zinedine Zidane walked off the field in disgrace in the 2006 World Cup final.
No footballing victory can ever wipe away the horror and pain that froze French hearts last year after two terror attacks in Paris.
But by advancing to the final against Portugal on Sunday, the Euro 2016 host put a lot of very big smiles on a lot of French faces.
Here are 5 things to know about France's first major tournament win against Germany since the 1958 World Cup:
GRIEZMANN'S ON FIRE
Euro 2016 top scorer Antoine Griezmann was like the toy in the Whac-A-Mole arcade game against Germany: It was never clear where he would pop up and do damage next.
His elusive movement and the free rein that France coach Didier Deschamps gave the Atletico Madrid forward to roam seemingly where the mood took him tied Germany in knots at times.
France's first goal-scoring chance started with Griezmann in his own half. After two slick interchanges of passes with midfielder Blaise Matuidi, Griezmann popped up on the edge of the German area and got a shot away, drawing a diving save from German `keeper Manuel Neuer.
It was a good example of how the German defense struggled to keep tabs on the 25-year-old who has moved up the gears as the tournament has progressed, seemingly getting more dangerous with each game.
He scored the penalty that gave France the lead against Germany on the stroke of half time.
His habit of being in the right place at the right time got France's second. After Neuer flailed at a cross into the box from midfielder Paul Pogba, Griezmann was there for the rebound, poking it in with his left foot through the `keeper's legs.
WHAT'S WITH THE HANDS?
Two consecutive matches, two German penalties for handball. That is careless from a team usually so slick.
After Jerome Boateng gifted a penalty to Italy in the quarterfinals, Bastian Schweinsteiger was guilty this time.
Jumping for a corner with French left-back Patrice Evra, the Manchester United midfielder inexplicably raised both arms above his head, a bizarre mistake from a player so experienced. The semifinal marked the 31-year-old's 120th appearance for Germany.
Schweinsteiger's right arm, the one wearing his bright yellow captain's armband, connected with the ball. Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli pointed to the spot.
Arms flung in the air by Boateng against Italy allowed Leonardo Bonucci to equalize and quickly made the hulking German defender the butt of humorous memes on the internet.
But that mistake didn't prove decisive: Germany went on to beat Italy in a penalty shoot-out.
Schweinsteiger's handball wasn't as flamboyant as Boateng's but the damage this time to Germany was greater.
On paper, Germany coach Joachim Loew reverted to four defenders at the back, changing from the more suffocating formation he used to contain Italy in the quarterfinals.
In reality, a German defensive pair of Boateng and Benedikt Howedes kept watch at the back, with Schweinsteiger just in front of them in a deep holding midfield role, while the rest of the team poured forward to heap pressure on France, especially in the furious first half.
Germany targeted the French left-hand side as a weak spot, with speedy German right-back Joshua Kimmich and muscular midfielder Emre Can combining to repeatedly overwhelm France's 35-year-old left-back Patrice Evra.
It was Loew's first use of Can at Euro 2016. He helped Germany swamp the midfield, pinning France back, and played so far forward that he acted as a second striker at times. France spent much of the match fighting fires, but did so effectively.
FRANCE'S GOOD TIMING
Griezmann isn't the only one getting better the deeper France goes. Pogba's timing is pretty good, too.
After a first standout match in the quarterfinals against Iceland, where he scored with a powerful header, Pogba was decisive again against Germany, creating France's second goal.
Pogba stole a page out of Cristiano Ronaldo's playbook, using deceptive footwork to shake off Shkodran Mustafi in the German defense. Having made space for himself, Pogba then floated in the cross that Neuer could only parry to Griezmann.
In goal, France captain Hugo Lloris made exceptional diving saves and 22-year-old Barcelona-bound defender Samuel Umtiti again proved the real deal in what was only his second appearance for France.
GERMANY'S BAD TIMING
Germany's mounting problems before and during this game eventually became overwhelming.
The absence through injury of striker Mario Gomez proved a big blow, since Thomas Mueller was completely ineffective in front of goal, as he has been all tournament.
The loss of the powerful Boateng to injury in the second half punched a hole in Germany's defense: It was his replacement, Mustafi, who allowed himself to be bamboozled by Pogba for France's second goal.
Schweinsteiger's handball added to the feeling that Germany's captain is losing his sharpness at age 31.
In all, it all proved too much even for a nation that has reached the semifinals or better at its last six major tournaments.
John Leicester is an international sports columnist for The Associated Press. Write to him at jleicester(at)ap.org or follow him at http://twitter.com/johnleicester