MARSEILLE, France – Euro 2016 at last had its great game, not quite an all-time classic perhaps, not Seville '82 certainly, but a minor epic of passion and controversy played out on a balmy evening in front of a febrile crowd in the most striking of French stadiums. It ended with France having beaten Germany in a competitive game for the first time since 1958, two Antoine Griezmann goals taking the host through to Sunday’s final against Portugal after a 2-0 victory over the reigning World Cup champions.
The details give the merest glimpse of a game of constant twists in which France at times seemed to be clinging on to the extent that Didier Deschamps’s adventurous team selection seemed a needless gamble. Germany, beset by injury and suspension before the game, also lost Jerome Boateng just after the hour mark, but produced probably its best attacking display of the tournament. There was courage in defeat, but there was also the thought that has lurked throughout Jogi Low's decade in charge of Germany: that his sides either attack or defend and are never good at blending both.
It would be a harsh critic who pointed out that six successive semifinals perhaps would have yielded more than one trophy with a coach of greater tactical acuity, but equally it’s reasonable to question why, the 7-1 against Brazil aside, Germany keeps slipping up at this stage, often against the first strong and well set-up team it meets.
But this was France’s night. Perhaps it does not wipe away the frustration of the two World Cup semifinal defeats or even the loss in the quarterfinal two years ago, but it is a night that will be remembered for a very long time. The stadium throbbed with noise and patriotic pride, saluting a team that is fulfilling its potential at just the right time.
After a spine-tingling rendition of La Marseillaise, there was an early French surge. It ripped into Germany, pinned it back and yielded one fine chance for Greizmann after an interchange with Blaise Matuidi. But Germany must have expected that and, like countless German sides through history, it proved adept at drawing an opponent’s sting. After 10 minutes or so, reality dawned, and it seemed an uncomfortable one for France.
In every game in this tournament other than the 5-2 quarterfinal win over Iceland, Deschamps has gotten it wrong in the first half and has been forced into a major change at the break. Here he stuck with the 4-2-3-1 that had proved so effective against Iceland, getting Griezmann close enough to Olivier Giroud to take advantage of his knockdowns, but the result was that Germany, forced into a 4-3-3 by a series of injuries, dominated the midfield to the extent it had 64% possession in the first half.
For 30 minutes the game was a story of German pressure. Hugo Lloris made excellent saves from Emre Can, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Thomas Muller, the latter of who was pushed into service at center forward and dragged a cut-back pass from Can wide. But just as the thought was forming that France had done well to get to halftime level, there came another French surge at the end of the half, driven by emotion.
It brought a Griezmann shot into the side-netting after a smart ball inside form Patrick Evra, a slow-motion chase in which Benedikt Howedes chased down Giroud after he had flicked a high ball past Jerome Boateng for himself, and then, improbably, a goal.
When the Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli awarded a penalty in first-half injury time, there was widespread bewilderment, but it turned out his assistant behind the goal had seen Schweinsteiger blocking an Evra header with his arm (of the players, only Giroud appealed). It was at point-blank range, but Rizzoli evidently deemed Schweinsteiger’s arm was in an “unnatural position,” in which case the decision, although unusual, was probably technically correct. After Boateng’s offense against Italy in the quarterfinal, it was the second penalty Germany had conceded in two games for mysteriously and needlessly raised arms.
Besides, given the shadows of the 1982 World Cup semifinal and the horrendous unpunished foul by the West Germany goalkeeper Toni Schumacher on France’s Patrick Battiston, that hung over this game, France could perhaps feel refereeing karma owed them one.
Griezmann, having missed a penalty in the Champions League final, converted this one with some style.
The German domination continued into the second half, but Samuel Umtiti was superb, winning ball after ball in the air and, perhaps, emphasizing Germany’s lack of a traditional center forward in the absence of Mario Gomez, Deschamps held off the decision to bolster the midfield and bring on N’Golo Kante until the 71st minute. Within a minute France led by two.
Paul Pogba's Many Haircuts
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Paul Pogba, who had been a ferocious presence all game–Muller at one point in the first half simply bounced off him–bullied Shkodran Mustafi, on for the injured Boateng, off the ball. He teased the defender then made space for a cross. Neuer got there ahead of Giroud to punch, but the ball bounced down for Griezmann to stab in–his sixth goal of the tournament, more than anybody at a European Championship since France's Michel Platini in 1984.
Joshua Kimmich hit the post with a 25-yard curler almost immediately, and Lloris made a stunning save from a Kimmich header in injury time, but the threatening German rally never really materialized. By the end, France’s self-belief was almost palpable.
After all the scandal and disgrace of the past 16 years, this was France’s best football night since 2000.
Sunday might bring an even better one.