After the anti-climax that was Wales vs Portugal yesterday, here came the real match of the tournament; two fitting finalists facing off for a spot in the final to potentially, and probably, win the tournament on Sunday night. Up stepped World champions Germany, headed by one of the world’s best managers in Joachim Löw, probably the number one goalkeeper in the globe Manuel Neuer, and other top players including Thomas Mueller, Mario Götze and Toni Kroos, to claim one hand on the trophy by putting in the teamwork and meticulous planning they have become known for. France, the away side on the scoreboard but very much the home one with the whole nation behind them, headed into the match as second favourites, but only by a slim margin considering they have been the top scoring side in the tournament so far with the flair and the talents of Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud and Dimitri Payet. The French may play beautiful football, but the Germans play the game effectively, they have the knowledge of how to win tournaments. I predicted this match to happen nearly four weeks ago now, and I also predicted a German win, but it was left to one of the two sides to make it happen. The time for speculation was over, now it was the opportunity to hype up the battle between the old guard of Europe, and the cultural and economic cornerstones of the EU. They were ready to face off against each other for a decisive place in the final of Euro 2016, their names in the history books on the line. Nobody remembers a runner-up? Ha, nobody ever remembers a semi-finalist, even if they are of the calibre of Germany and France, in the years after the tournament.
Following the suspension of Mats Hummels and the injuries to Mario Gomez and Sami Khedira, Germany made three swaps in the starting XI, Bastian Schweinsteiger and Julian Draxler returning, and the versatile Emre Can coming in for his first appearance of the tournament as Low’s team changed formation from 3-5-2 back to 4-2-3-1. For this to happen though, there had to be sacrifices, Mueller moving to the striker’s position, and Kroos pushing further forward to attacking mid in consideration of Can and Schweinsteiger, who are both naturally defensive. France, on the other hand, didn’t have such issues to worry about, naming an unchanged side from the one which thrashed Iceland 5-2, with the physical Samuel Umtiti and pacey Moussa Sissoko retained in place of Adil Rami and the unshakeable N’Golo Kante. There were still doubts about the experience of the side in blue, but it was up to them to prove us all wrong, as well as claiming a big scalp for the whole of the expectant nation around them.
As the cameras panned in from the beautiful, swinging nearby wave-like curves of the Stade Velodrome in Marseille, both sides bellowed out their national anthems with enough gusto to make even the hairs on the back of the neck of a partisan fan stand up. If singing could win games, there would’ve been a deadlock here in the victors of the match. From the very start of the match, you could just feel the weight of expectation on these two highly skilled sides, Neuer having to clean up from the remains of French chances questionably dealt with by his nervy defence and the ball being moved across the park quickly, with no one player really wanting to make an impact yet. Griezmann’s good opportunity on the edge of the box was tame, but Neuer still had to stretch to stop it, as France claimed the early ascendancy.
Germany were still very much creating, Mueller sliding wide another early opportunity as they moved the ball as if it were theirs to keep and toy with. Emre Can forced Lloris into a point-blank stop at his right post with a deflected shot, and the Germans were growing ever more into the match. They looked disciplined and well-drilled in their tactics, while the French appeared slightly less suited to their expansive (but slightly more refined than 4-3-3) style, with Paul Pogba the shining example of this, failing to track back and support his supposed midfield partner in Blaise Matuidi in the spells he needed to. When I explained my reasoning for tipping Germany in this match a month ago, the main aspect I mentioned was Deschamps’ relative inexperience on the international stage as boss, which would result in a lack of tactical nous at stages such as these in tournaments. So far, his side were proving me right, as even though they didn’t concede in the first half, they did look shaky at the back and slightly unsure of their formation when on the back foot, which became more and more common as Germany dominated possession. They grew back into the game in the final five minutes of the half, France, but even when Olivier Giroud had the ball clean through on goal after escaping with it from the half way line, his lax style let him down again as a surprisingly rapid Benedikt Höwedes recovered to perform a perfect slide to remove the ball from play. You just sensed that, even when France had their chances, it certainly wasn’t their half, and it may not be their match.
Scrap that. Shockingly, and to the surprise of everyone in the stadium, referee Nicola Rizzoli awarded France a penalty in time (not) added on, for an apparent handball by Bastian Schweinsteiger after Patrice Evra flicked on from a corner. It was a carbon copy of the penalty awarded to Italy in Germany’s last game, and for me neither of them deserved to be awarded, as there is nothing players can do from a yard away from the ball, you have to raise your arms to beat other players in the air, it’s basic aerodynamics. It was an absolute game-changing joke that it was given, and Antoine Griezmann gleefully tucked it away in the bottom left corner of Neuer’s goal, as the goalkeeper went the other way (despite his practice at penalties in the last round). Unbelievable and incredibly gutting scenes, maybe considering I was supporting Germany, but from a football perspective too, as apparently you now can’t use your arms to jump at set pieces nowadays, which is not very convincing from a refereeing perspective.
Germany went out early in the second half with the intention of putting immediate, high pressure when without the ball, and throwing men forward for the cause when they did have it. Draxler and Özil were soon the key men, cutting in from wide positions and delivering crosses for the likes of Mueller and Can to attempt to get a decisive touch to, but just failing in the opening periods of the half. The injured Jerome Boateng went off for Shkodran Mustafi in a substitution which just broke down the play when they needed it to flow, as despite almost everyone pushing up to France’s half, they couldn’t quite find that incisive moment. Götze also replaced an unremarkable and over-defensive Can in midfield, putting more focus on attack with around 25 minutes left, but Germany certainly didn’t look desperate, not yet at least.
France, in stark contrast, dropped even further back with the swap of N’Golo Kante for Dimitri Payet, putting the emphasis on sitting behind the ball for the remainder of the game. But this didn’t quite have the expected effect in the minute after. Paul Pogba dummied the ball this way and that from what seemed a hopeless position on the left against Mustafi and a missing-in-action Kimmich, and managed to squeeze in a cross, which the sweeper keeper Neuer could only paw away, only for his stretched defence to leave the ball to a well-primed Griezmann straight in front of goal to tap in between Neuer’s legs. It was a shambolic goal to concede from the perspective of a normally highly-organised Germany, who by this point had to push forward to get back into the game. But they only worsened their position in the match by doing so, and now they had to push for not one, but two goals to level up the match. Their prospects now looked dire.
As winger Leroy Sané came on for the Germans, he got an immediate chance from a brilliant cross, only for his shot from close range across the goal to be blocked, forcing it agonisingly wide. They soon turned to sticking four men up front (Götze, Özil, Draxler and Sané), but as the clock ticked down, none of them could quite reach the crosses coming in, as what they lacked in height, they didn’t have the chance to make up for on the ground. Even when they did get their head to the ball, Lloris saved Joshua Kimmich’s close range header at full stretch in added time, compounding Germany’s bad luck throughout the second half. France, after a tough last 15 minutes or so to hold out, were into the final. I don’t know how they did it, but they were somehow in the final.
Team of the Day
You know what, I can’t even say France were the better side on the night, so I’m going to say Germany. The reason they won this match for me, was down to the shockingly misguided penalty decision at the end of the first half, which allowed France the opportunity to go into the second half with a lead. If it hadn’t have been given, and it shouldn’t, France wouldn’t have had an advantage, and both sides would’ve gone into the second half as equals. Germany had to go into the second half chasing the game, and that in the end, coupled with their inability to finish their best chances, lost them the game. France didn’t show much worthy of winning the game, other than profiting off a single mistake by the German defence, as they sat back and a lot of the time rode their luck, just sticking feet out and heading the ball out when faced up against players half a foot shorter than them. It infuriates me how they won the game, and also how I didn’t get any points for my prediction of 1-1 in normal time on the BBC predictor.
Player of the Day
Honestly, I cannot give Antoine Griezmann the award for just scoring a penalty and toe poking an easy finish home. So from the rest, I’ve got Samuel Umtiti, Hugo Lloris and Bastian Schweinsteiger on my shortlist, and I think in the end I’ll hand the award to Lloris, as he saved numerous chances tonight. Point blank headers, low edge of the box efforts and split-second volleys, he kept them all out, and when you look at the stats after the match, he saved his side from what would’ve been a potential loss had a goalkeeper with less agility and reflexes been in his place.
Goal of the Day
Well, neither were worldies, that’s for sure. I can’t give it to a penalty, so I’ll have to award France’s late second with the goal of the day tag, even if it was scrappy. It was more for Paul Pogba’s determination and perseverance than Griezmann’s light finish that the goal came to fruition, and also why it deserves any plaudits. The way he whipped in a pinpoint cross from between the by-line and Mustafi’s trailing leg deserves admiration, but for it to force Neuer into an awkward flap was the ultimate result of it, and that is what created the opportunity for Griezmann to tuck it away.
Shock of the Day
I still can’t get over that penalty, it was absolutely ludicrous and in the end a complete game-changer. These incidents really need to be looked at by an official’s panel, because we need a clear, unarguable rule laid down for once…
Day Rating: 8/10
I’m Looking Forward to…
One final period for reflection and reaction between now and Sunday, when Portugal and France will face off in what seemed an unlikely final a month ago, fighting one last 90 minute (or more) battle to see who will be ultimate champions of this fabulous edition of the European Championships. I’ll be ready to see you all again on Sunday night, hopefully with a deserving and entertaining winner to reflect on. For now though, goodnight, and I’ll see you again before you know it for one last edition of A Continental Affair!
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!