Sunday 11 December 2016

No mercy from French as Iceland dream dies

France 5 Iceland 2

Published 04/07/2016 | 02:30

Concentration is the name of the game for Olivier Giroud as he scores France’s first goal. Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images
Concentration is the name of the game for Olivier Giroud as he scores France’s first goal. Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images

The cursed Mexican waves started after half an hour. Inside the Stade de France, the crowd already knew it was game over

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Iceland’s dream had died 10 minutes earlier. When they started conceding the type of goal they would expect to score themselves, the game was up.

Paul Pogba’s running jump to convert an Antoine Griezmann corner put the hosts two goals ahead, and the body language of the Icelandic players as they trudged back to the centre circle told its own story. The punch in the gut had drained their energy levels.

They will still return home today as heroes, a team from a country with a smaller population than Cork which has made it all the way to the last eight in Europe.

On Saturday, their joint-manager Heimir Hallgrimsson, a part-time dentist, was asked to put their achievements into context.

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He said that he would wait until they were knocked out before thinking about it, but he still managed to provide an answer. “This hasn’t been just about the players here,” he said, “It’s for all Icelandic football players. The world will talk about us in a different way after this tournament.

Encouragement

“If anyone should get praised, it’s the youth coaches that made these players. It’s encouragement for our amateur clubs – everyone will benefit from this.”

They reached this level because of a coherent plan that every small country can learn from. By investing in coaching and facilities without seeking to change their identity, they have struck a winning formula.

In total, 21 of their 23 squad members started their professional careers at home. Like Ireland, they are reliant on late developers who came to the full-time professional game relatively late. But they have not come together through a random set of circumstances.

“We’re mates,” said captain Aron Gunnarsson. “We’ve played together for God knows how many years, all the way up from underage level. That’s the way it should be. That’s why we’re ready to fight for each other.”

That attitude brought them through a round of 16 tie with an England side devoid of that spirit. But this was one match too many.

Iceland named the same XI for all five outings and every one was a battle. That caught up with them as they ran into a well-rested French operation that has used the competition to learn about themselves.

A run to the semi-finals featuring matches with Romania, Albania, Switzerland, Ireland and Iceland says a lot for the benefit of home advantage, particularly with the spaced-out break between matches that so infuriated Martin O’Neill.

Germany on Thursday will be a completely different story – the first group winner they have encountered – and it will be interesting to find out if Didier Deschamps keeps faith with the strategy that has served them well in the knock-out stages.

In time, they might reflect on the first half of their win over Ireland in Lyon as the turning point. At the interval, Deschamps realised that his side would benefit from the removal of a midfielder and the re-deployment of Griezmann from the right flank to a central role, playing off Olivier Giroud. That extra option confused O’Neill’s side, and it was a key factor in this rout.

The Atletico Madrid star’s movement troubled an Icelandic operation that prided itself on doing the simple things well. He succeeded in dragging them out of shape.

With N’Golo Kante suspended, Deschamps went with Blaise Matuidi and Pogba (left) as a midfield duo, with Moussa Sissoko introduced on the right.

Iceland started reasonably well, but they were undone by a 12th minute chip over the top from Matuidi that they would normally deal with routinely.

Olivier Giroud reacted quicker, dropping off the shoulder of the last man to race through and fire between the legs of Hannes Halldorsson, the 32-year-old goalkeeper who only turned fully professional three years ago and once directed his country’s Eurovision entry in his previous life.

There was nothing enjoyable about this show for the Norwegian-based stopper. He was left to pick the ball out of the net again when Pogba rose to dispatch Griezmann’s delivery – the latter having won the corner with a clever run.

After that, it was a case of how many. Two more goals were added before the interval, with Dimitri Payet, who enjoyed cutting inside to link up with Griezmann, collecting a simple pass and arrowing a left footer into the bottom corner.

The fourth was an abomination for Iceland as Kari Arnason, a heroic presence in the centre of defence throughout the competition, was finally made to look like an individual who had spent recent years earning a wage from Plymouth, Aberdeen and Rotherham.

He misjudged a Pogba pass and Iceland’s high line was exposed. Griezmann impudently sauntered into the space to loft the ball over the advancing Halldorsson.

Underdogs

Iceland emerged for a damage limitation exercise and a pair of half-time changes freshened things up. They pulled one back courtesy of Kolbeinn Sigthorsson, who got in ahead of Samuel Umtiti, the Barcelona-bound replacement for the suspended Adil Rami. The 22-year-old was making his international debut.

France responded by restoring their advantage. It was another horror show for the underdogs with Giroud rising above Halldorsson to convert a free from Payet.

The Arsenal striker’s joy was curtailed as Deschamps immediately substituted him. He was soon joined on the sideline by his club-mate Laurent Koscielny; they were the only French players on a yellow and the management were not prepared to take any risks.

Everything is falling into place. Payet’s newfound status was recognised when he was taken from the fray with 10 minutes remaining.

The natives approved, even though sloppiness set in. In a show of respect, they performed Iceland’s distinctive slow-hand clap, a Viking war cry of ‘Hu, Hu, Hu’. Sentiment took over on the bench too, as veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen was given a late run to cheer the away section.

Their evening would finish on a high as a Birkir Bjarnason header gave the scoreline a more respectable look. Iceland’s adventure is over, but they made their mark.

For France, the competition really starts now.

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