France will play Portugal in the final of Euro 2016 after stunning the Germans by 2-0 in a cauldron of an atmosphere in Marseille.
When Rocky Balboa stepped into the ring, you knew what to expect. It didn’t matter who he was facing. For 15-rounds they would beat the crap out of him. For 15-rounds he would look for that one opportunity.
It’s what Portugal did to Wales.
Would we see the same thing happen in the most hotly anticipated match of the finals: Germany v France.
The bookies made France the pre-tournament favourites. For a nation that always seems so fractured and out of sorts, they know how to come together for a major sporting event.
They were the hosts of the Euro 1984 and they won it.
They were the hosts of the 1998 World Cup, and they won that also.
And then the tournament started. France looked scintillating moving forward, the pundits weren’t worried about their performance on the ball, it was how they would react when they didn’t have it that gave causes for concern. The bookies had a change of heart. Midway through the tournament, Germany were installed as the favourites.
The Germans has been a powerhouse as usual in this competition. Brushing aside everyone who gets in their way with minimal fuss, and as they sung their national anthem for the sixth time in this competition Manuel Neuer had still not conceded a single goal from open play.
And yet there was a spectre hanging over Germany. Winning semi-finals of major tournaments had proven tricky in recent years. They suffered defeat to Italy 2-1 in this stage of the competition, four years ago, and lost in the last four of the 2006 & 2010 World Cups. It was a habit they didn’t want following them to Marseille.
The French breezed past Iceland in the quarterfinals minus N’Golo Kante and Adil Rami. In came Samuel Umtiti and Moussa Sissoko, and a 5-2 scoreline later Didier Deschamps was faced with the ‘it ain’t broke don’t fix it’ dilemma, and he didn’t fix it.
It would turn out to be a masterstroke of a decision because the nervousness of Rami has been the reason so many questioned how France would handle the waves of attacks a side like Germany can produce.
Joachim Low had a different problem. He was missing large parts of his spine with Mats Hummels, Sami Khedira and Mario Gomez all out of the game. Fears that Bastian Schweinsteiger would also miss out were banished after the team captain’s name made it onto the team sheet for a record 38th time in a major final – and he’s only 31.
Germany in Complete Control
France started the match at the same tempo of the cauldron of noise that rained down on them from the stands. They went straight for the jugular, and Antoine Griezmann should have put the French ahead in the first five minutes when he danced through two French tackles before making Neuer produce an early save.
It was going to be a test for the Germans.
Or so people thought.
Cool, calm, and composed – the German machine started chugging not long after the Atletico Madrid striker had missed that chance. The French sat back and said come and have a go if you think you’re hard enough. Germany loves that, and they pinged the ball all over the pitch with laser-like accuracy. The French couldn’t touch the ball, and when they did, they gave it straight back to the men in white.
Can found some space down the right and squared the ball. Thomas Muller lunged for it in a desperate attempt to score his first goal in a European Championships and put it wide.
Germany was in complete control.
Mesut Ozil and Toni Kroos were the conductors.
It was beautiful to watch.
I always wondered how France would fair against a team of note, and I was getting my answer – not very well.
And yet despite Germany’s dominance of possession, Hugo Lloris was able to get a manicure in the French goal.
Then Olivier Giroud broke free of the German defence just beyond the half way line. The Arsenal forward powered into the area, pulled back his left foot to take a shot and Benedikt Howedes came from nowhere to get in the block.
It was a warning.
France might be under the cosh, but they carry a severe goal threat on the break.
And then the pivotal moment in the tournament for both sides.
The fourth official (or is he the sixth official these days?) signified three minutes of injury time when the French won a rare corner kick. The ball flew into the box, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Patrice Evra leapt for the ball; the Germans cleared, and then the action stopped.
I didn’t know why?
The commentators didn’t know why?
And then the referee booked Schweinsteiger meaning he must have awarded a penalty. The replay showed the Man Utd midfielder leading with his right arm, and the ball barely grazing it. The referee was in no position to see it, there was no way, within the laws of the game, that it was a deliberate handball, and yet here was an opportunity for France to go in at the half time break by 1-0 after being pummeled for 45-minutes.
Up stepped Griezmann, who smashed the ball home. It was his fifth goal of the competition.
Could Germany bounce back?
They always bounce back.
Not this time.
The flow of the match remained the same. Germany controlled the football. France sat back. Only this time, there was a panic to the German’s play.
The French were going to hold on.
And then in the 72nd minute, after wondering how the French defence would stand up to scrutiny it was the German defence who faltered. Baby-faced Joshua Kimmich made a mistake at the back. The ball was fed out to Paul Pogba wide on the right. Kimmich went out to meet him. Pogba made him look like a fool; crossed the ball into the box, Neuer pawed at it, and it fell onto the toe of Griezmann who poked it into the back of the net to give France a 2-0 lead, becoming the first player since Michel Platini in 1984 to score more than five goals in a Euro Finals (Platini scored 9!).
It was classic Rocky Balboa stuff. Germany had hit them with left hooks, uppercuts, and right jabs, but France took everything the Germans could throw at them before knocking them to the ground with the old one-two.
Germany had a few chances to score towards the end, including an amazing save from Lloris in the dying minutes, but it was all over as soon as Griezmann wheeled away to celebrate his second goal of the game, and surely, his Golden Boot award.
The Germans were out.
France goes on to meet Portugal in Sunday’s final for another tale of Rocky proportions except France will switch roles.
They don’t lose when they host major finals.
They have won their last ten games against the Portuguese.
Portugal is rubbish.
Let the Rocky soundtrack begin.