Brave Iceland bow out as ruthless France set up mouthwatering semi-final with Germany
So one fairy tale comes to an end and another one now faces a chapter with eleven Germans taking on the role of the big bad wolf.
By eliminating Iceland from Euro 2016 in emphatic fashion in Paris, France cut short Cinderella’s party and left the stage clear for themselves to reclaim the hearts of the nation at a time when the country needs a happy ending more than ever before.
But it will not be easy for Didier Deschamps’ team. Iceland may have been brushed aside in a fashion that England could not manage in Nice, but Germany lie in wait in Thursday’s semi-final in Marseille and the French have not tasted victory over their neighbours in a competitive fixture since 1958.
Memories of two unsuccessful World Cup semi-finals, in 1982 and 1986, and a quarter-final defeat at Brazil 2014, will hang over the French as they head for Stade Velodrome, but France must overcome their bogey team at some point and Euro 2016 may just be the moment.
They will face the Germans in fine form, however, having routed Iceland.
Two goals from Olivier Giroud and one apiece from Dimitri Payet, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann were enough to secure a stress-free victory, with Kolbeinn Sigthorsson and Birkir Bjarnason replying for Iceland.
Payet and Griezmann were outstanding, dominating the game for the hosts and displaying the flair and guile which will be required to overcome the world champions.
But are they ready? France are a growing team, one which will be even stronger in two years’ time, but they displayed defensive frailties against Iceland and Germany will expose them in clinical fashion.
Aside from the pressure of expectancy that comes with being the host nation, France must also uphold the traditions of Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane by winning a major tournament on home soil this summer.
France tend to win when the football party comes to their country, with Platini leading Michel Hidalgo’s team to glory at Euro 84 before Zidane inspired Les Bleus to the World Cup, under the captaincy of Deschamps, back in 1998.
This team lacks the experience and proven quality of its glorious predecessors, but it certainly boasts the potential to develop into another great French generation.
But because Deschamps’ squad retains an air of naivety, this fixture threatened to become a tricky obstacle for France to clear.
Iceland, the fairy tale story of Euro 2016, shocked the world by defeating England in Nice to progress to the quarter-finals, but they started this tournament in 34th position in the Fifa world rankings – 17 places below France – and remain one of the global game’s minnows.
Yet Lars Lagerback and Heimir Hallgrimsson have injected confidence and organisation into their team and, buoyed by the confidence of beating England, Iceland began with the belief that they could record an even bigger upset in the Stade de France.
As early as the third minute, Gylfi Sigurdsson found space in the French penalty area to hit the target from close range, only to be denied by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
France, without the suspended Adil Rami at centre-half and N’Golo Kante in midfield, took time to find their feet defensively, with debutant Samuel Umtiti preferred ahead of Manchester City’s £42m defender Eliaquim Mangala.
Birkir Bjarnason went close again for Iceland on ten minutes when his shot from Kolbeinn Sigthorsson’s flick-on flew narrowly wide of the French post.
There were no sense of panic within the France team, though, and any hint of anxiety was banished when Giroud claimed his second goal of the tournament on 12 minutes.
The goal was made by Blaise Matuidi’s fine pass to the Arsenal forward, but Giroud did well to escape the attentions of his marker, Kari Arnason, before racing into the penalty area and guiding a low left-foot strike beyond goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson.
Iceland, with nine of their eleven starters risking a suspension in the event of a yellow card, now faced the same task as when up against England, having conceded early.
But while they quickly equalised against Roy Hodgson’s team, the instant response did not come, with France determined to go for the kill to avoid any threat of a repeat of Iceland’s ability to bite back.
The hosts maintained their pressure and Pogba doubled their lead on 20 minutes when he powered into the penalty area to climb above Jon Dadi Bodvarsson and head Griezmann’s corner into the net from six yards.
This was Iceland’s worst nightmare become reality. A brave team of battlers being exposed by the superior quality of a ruthless opponent.
And it did not end there. Had Bodvarsson done better five minutes later, when he volleyed over from close range after another Sigthorsson flick on, Iceland may have unnerved France.
But Deschamps’ team were now brimming with confidence and the game was only going to go one way.
The third goal did not come until the 43rd minute, though, when Payet struck Griezmann’s lay-off past Halldorsson from the edge of the penalty area.
Iceland were now dead and buried and booking their flight back to Reykjavik, but France were not prepared to take their foot off the pedal and Griezmann scored a fourth seconds after Payet’s goal.
This one was the pick of the bunch, with the Atletico Madrid forward racing away from the defence before sending a sumptuous chip over the helpless Halldorsson.
Iceland do not lack spirit, however, and they exposed the concentration issues in the French defence by scoring eleven minutes into the second-half.
Gylfi Sigurdsson’s cross to the near post should have been dealt with, but France’s failure to do so left Nantes forward Sigthorsson free to slide in to claim his second goal of the tournament.
It was no more than a consolation, though, with France hitting back three minutes later when Giroud headed Payet’s free-kick in from ten yards.
Lloris then denied Iceland a second with a point blank save from Sverrir Ingason before Bjarnason headed in Iceland’s second from Ari Skualson’s 84th minute cross.
It was another example of France’s Achilles heel – one which Germany will gleefully expose if they do not correct the problem quickly.
Independent News Service