Following the fallout of England’s exit to the hands of a certain nation on the very North West edge of the Eurasian plate, it seemed like the world’s media were suddenly intrinsically obsessed with that volcanic rock with a population, as we very well know, close to that of Leicester. It seemed like, according to them, we were about to see another plucky, victorious underdog, à la Greece 2004, in the shape of hardy Iceland. Realistically, we saw their win as a one-off result, and we expected highly-rated France to cruelly end their tale here. But before any of that could be certain, both sides had to prove their worth in front of thousands of their lucky sets of supporters. It was billed as the Vikings vs Napoleon’s clearly superior but cocky army, a battle transcending cultures, historical ties and backgrounds, a clash to beat all before it, a tie to decide the last of the final four remaining sides in the tournament.
Didier Deschamps was forced into two changes to his so far winning, but unconvincing, team, with the suspended Adil Rami and N’Golo Kante making way for the less impressive but still strong Samuel Umtiti and Moussa Sissoko. A Liga BBVA centre-back swapping out for a Barcelona-bound player of the same position and a pacey, hard-working Premier League midfielder dropping out of the side for another. When you put it that way, it appeared France really did have the blessed-in-all-regions squad that everyone raved about in the build up to the tournament, that many thought would be talented enough to easily reach at least the final. In reality, they had been tested to an extent already in the tournament, and they were sure to face another tough test, which honestly we all thought they would turn out victors in. Their opponents, co-managed by both Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson, stuck with the same (surely fatigued) starting XI that had taken them this far, partly in (possible) distrust of the rest of the squad, and also in faith of the so-far successful system. Shockingly enough, only two (Ragnar Sigurdsson and Jon Dadi Bodvarsson) of their starting line-up were bereft of a booking so far in the competition, so Iceland had two options if they wanted to win; go gung-ho and risk losing some important players for the next round, or refrain from tackling and risk conceding. It put them in an immediate quandary, but France had their own without Kante and Rami in the game. One thing was for sure; the game was going to be interesting at the very least, and breath-taking at its best.
France, after their rousing rendition of Les Marseilles, appeared to set-up with a slightly differing formation and style to their previous games; dropping the questionably effective 4-3-3 for a more organised and traditional 4-4-2, Giroud and Griezmann spearheading the attack. Behind them, they had the BPL pairing of Payet and Sissoko, highly contrasting in their styles, on the wings, and the rangy, skilful duo of Pogba and Matuidi in the middle of the park. So Deschamps was going to copy the methods of Joachim Low and Germany last night, recreating the tactics of their opponents, just with more talented players. If you think about it, it is a stroke of managerial genius, nullifying the opposition by setting up in the same formations, and getting into the heads of their foes at the same time, creating an aura of invincibility. And it didn’t take too long for this to pay off; just 12 minutes in, Olivier Giroud collecting a perfect Matuidi through-ball between a gaggle of Icelandic players on the edge of the left hand of Iceland’s box, leathered a clean finish through Halldórsson’s legs to put France 1-0 up. In the end, it was pretty simple, showing the gulf in quality, both of technical skills and organisation, between the two sides.
Iceland had been struggling to link patient play up, and were rushing their game, perhaps in intimidation of the vocal French domination of the crowd in the national stadium, the Stade de France. Their task became far tougher just seven minutes after the opening goal, when from Antoine Griezmann’s tightly whipped corner, Paul Pogba sprang like a sea lion above a group of Icelandic defenders, who you could not criticise as they did mark their man, and nodded in a second with a bullet header typical of any man of his height. Set pieces are meant to be the bread and butter of any plucky challengers to the crown like Iceland, Wales or Leicester, but France even had their opponents pinned down here, and you could be certain this was all part of Deschamps’ plan.
Iceland now turned to attempting to outrun their adversaries, but even that failed, as they realised that they had definitely met their match against a world-class team in this tournament. They were playing as well as they could, ‘giving 100%’ as any insufferable manager would argue, but it wasn’t anywhere near enough. France were playing incredibly, putting England to shame by proving how easy it should’ve been (but also sending a message that they would’ve smashed Roy Hodgson’s barmy army had they reached this stage).
That pain was only compounded for Iceland as Dimitri Payet stroked in another trademark clinical finish from just outside the box, increasing the margin to 3-0 on 42 minutes. It was easy for the French, Griezmann just handing the ball to the West Ham player on the edge of the box, who he trusted to do the rest with the low, secretive finish. This time, the Icelandic defence could be blamed, as none of them pressured him by any stretch of the imagination, allowing him to score a beautiful, but still such an avoidable, goal. I couldn’t even believe what happened next. Probably only 60 seconds or so later, and from Olivier Giroud’s casual pass, Antoine Griezmann rushed away from the leggy Icelandic defence, cut them wide open, and chipped in a ruthlessly cheeky finish over Halldórsson. They were putting Iceland, who had been so impressive prior to this match, to the sword, and they were doing it in the most carefree and clinical way imaginable. 4-0 at half-time, and I was totally shocked by how good the French had actually been. This was an unprecedented, unpredictable, astounding thrashing happening right in front of our eyes, and it was glorious to watch, unless you were an Iceland fan of course. France had won the game with one half of absolute magic, crippling a physically and mentally fatigued Iceland team with four cracking goals, each worthy of settling any game in this tournament. In all realistic analysis, this was probably going to turn out as the most impressive and destructive half of football any side was going to play over the course of Euro 2016, it was that good.
Alfred Finnbogason (which I love to say in an Irish accent) came on up front for Iceland at half time, but they could’ve brought Pele, Maradona and Kevin Davies all out of retirement and they still would have no chance of getting back in this game. They were done and dusted, but you could applaud them for at least trying to show some endeavour to save their place in the competition, or at the very least restore some parity for the sake of their passionate and loyal fans. Just ten minutes into the half, they did do just that, with Kolbeinn Sigthorsson sliding in for a bottom-corner, close range toe-poke from a Gylfi Sigurdsson (finally making a notable impact at this tournament) cross from the right wing.
Unfortunately enough for the Icelanders, just three minutes later, Olivier Giroud headed in a simple chance from Dimitri Payet’s free kick, eerily similar to his goal which opened up Euro 2016 against Romania over three weeks ago now. The free-kick took skill, control and guile, and after the perfection of that from Payet, all the Arsenal striker had to do was close his eyes, flick the ball on with his well-gelled hair, and wait to fall back down to earth before celebrating with the 60,000 or so French fans or so in the stadium.
Andre-Pierre Gignac and Eliaquim Mangala came on for the previously booked Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny for Didier Deschamps’ side, as the whole game kind of slowed to a halt, France protecting their best players while Iceland didn’t have enough of the ball to start up any promising moves. The game sort of broke down from 65 minutes on, with even the commentators failing to get exciting by anything other than another substitution, this time Kingsley Coman replacing Dimitri Payet. Then, as the match drew closer to a conclusion, veteran and Icelandic hero Eidur Gudjohnsen came on in place of Sigthorsson, and surprisingly enough made an immediate impact to the game. Well, he didn’t score or grab an assist, but he was involved in a tidy little move, patiently building play up, until Birkir Bjarnason headed in his second goal of the tournament from an Ari Skulason cross on the left wing. It made a sweet end to the story for the Icelandic team at Euro 2016, demonstrating the never-say-die attitude and team ethic of the whole nation, working together across the pitch to get what they deserve from battle.
At the final whistle though, it was the French players who were comfortable victors, running out 5-2 winners on the night, in a highly entertaining and impressive rout. The defences weren’t all that bad in this match; it was just that the attacks were on fire and both ends of the park. Finishing (for once in the tournament) was clinical, through balls more often than not found their intended targets, and the crosses were continually pinpoint, picking out the best man for the job whenever the opportunity arose. Both sides can take a lot of credit from this match, however many they conceded, because after the tactical standoff of last night, we needed a fast, open match, and that is what these two delivered for us; the fans. Congratulations Iceland on a great and remarkable tournament that we will all remember for years, and good luck to France in the next round, where you will have to improve to match Germany.
Team of the Day
France had it all tonight; shooting, crossing, short passing, patience, determination and skill, they showed a whole range of demographics required of a side which wants to win a tournament, and thoroughly smashed their opponents.
Player of the Day
Paul Pogba had it all in my opinion today, mixing cool, calm build up with incisive, penetrative forward play, in the end being one of a number of reasons that his side won with ease today. He hardly put a foot wrong, bossing possession in the middle of the park against a clearly intimidated Icelandic set of players, and his towering header capped his whole performance off, opening up the floodgates after a stagnating period following Giroud’s opener.
Goal of the Day
Well, there’s plenty to choose from, if nothing else! For me, it’s between Giroud’s opener, Payet’s carved strike and Griezmann’s dink, and when pushed, I would hand Griezmann the gold medal. The way he outpaced the tired Icelandic defence, picked his head up to see where Halldórsson was approaching from, and just eased a chip over the goalkeeper was so tidy, that I think he deserves this award just for how great the goal looked, no matter how much skill it took. It was an incredibly sweet finish that just topped off a perfect-in-all-ways first half for the French, summing up how well they can play as both a team and individuals.
Shock of the Day
Glenn Hoddle’s use of the word ‘swaz’ during commentary on this game made me cringe so much, listening to him trying to sound interesting and a bit nutty, but failing on so many levels. Stick to the anti-disability remarks and geriatric ramblings about what you remember about the 90’s, Glenn, we don’t want you to try and understand today’s society.
Day Rating: 9/10
I’m Looking Forward to…
Another period of rest, before two classic and massive semi-finals which will go down in the history books, deciding two big finalists for the whole competition. We are drawing ever closer to the conclusion of all this great football, with the final in just a week’s time, so we should all get a good rest in before another stretch of decisive, ground-breaking football to go down in history. Goodnight, and I’ll see you on Wednesday!
Author - Will Hugall
Now a BA Journalism student at Nottingham Trent University, I divide my time between my base in Radford and back home in East Sussex while watching as much football as I can!