Video referee papers over French cracks
France 2 Australia 1
In World Cups past this was a game France would have lost. But in the era of video assistant referees and goal-line technology, the latest innovations twice came to their assistance, first awarding them a penalty, then spotting their winning shot had crossed the line.
It added up to a very 21st-century victory. And never mind the man of the match, in Paris already the process must be under way to award the video ref the Legion d'Honneur.
"I'm not going to complain about VAR today because it was in our favour, obviously," said France manager Didier Deschamps. "The referee did not see that there was a foul, he was able to correct his mistake. That is a good thing."
A good thing maybe. But how France needed the technological assistance. What heavy weather their much-vaunted team made of victory. Up against an Australian side superbly organised by Huddersfield's Aaron Mooy, how they struggled to find anything close to the sort of control their talent should be capable of seizing.
"There were a lot of moments the players of France didn't know what to do with themselves against us and that is a compliment nobody expected," said Australia coach Bert van Marwijk. And he wasn't wrong. Last seen in the World Cup as manager of a Holland side that besmirched the 2010 final with their chest-high tackling, Van Marwijk may have ushered out the era of Total Football but he knows how to organise a defence. How he must have thrilled to see the gold Australia shirts forming two solid lines in front of their goalkeeper, Brighton's Matt Ryan.
Here they were, with two Premier League players and the rest from football's less visited outposts (Aston Villa and Celtic notwithstanding) matching some of the most celebrated players in world football.
Snapping into tackles, spoiling, stretching every fibre to make last-ditch interceptions, their magnificently destructive effort was epitomised by Trent Sainsbury of Grasshoppers, who twice managed to get a leg in the way to divert the ball as Antoine Griezmann appeared to be heading goalwards.
It was a hugely frustrating opening for France. Not least for their celebrated youthful forward line. It may be a bit early to make judgement as it is only the second time they have started a game together, but could it be that the combination of Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele will turn out to be the Gallic equivalent of Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard, a natural combination on paper that falls apart on the grass?
Here they were in Kazan, collectively worth more than the gross national product of a former Soviet Republic, giving new definition to the term underwhelming. The main problem was, like Gerrard and Lampard, they seemed to spend their time together converging on the same space.
Deschamps had admitted in his pre-match press conference that there was a "traffic jam" issue with his front line. But his tactics did little to free up space for them. It took until the 58th minute before we saw hint of their potential.
A superb ball from Paul Pogba unleashed Griezmann. Initially referee Andres Cunha seemed to believe that Joshua Risdon's sliding tackle had plucked the ball off the Frenchman's toes. But a word in his ear advised him to check the replay on the pitchside screens. Scrutiny of the slow motion suggested that Risdon caught Pogba's trailing leg.
"The ref needs to be 100 per cent honest. He was standing close to the penalty and said play on," complained Van Marwijk. But it was hard to argue the decision was not the right one, however inadvertently Risdon had tripped the forward. Griezmann stepped up to nail the spot-kick, a moment which, after his recent foray into film making, he will doubtless be marking with the imminent release of a feature length documentary.
France's lead lasted no more than four minutes, however. Mooy floated in a free-kick which for some reason Samuel Umtiti decided to punch away. There was no need for VAR this time. And Mile Jedinak calmly gave Australia deserved parity.
By now, Deschamps had tired of his front three. He took off Griezmann and Dembele and sent on Olivier Giroud and Nabil Fekir. It was Giroud who made the most obvious difference. Pogba, who was growing in authority, strode forward and played ball into Mbappe, who returned the pass to the advancing Manchester United midfielder. Pogba then played another sharp one-two with Giroud. And, as he shaped to shoot, the ball looped up off the foot of Aziz Behich, over Ryan's head and bounced off the bar and down before ending up in the keeper's arms.
Once again technology intervened. The watch on Senor Cunha's wrist buzzed to indicate the ball had crossed the line. It may have been a scrappy finish, it may have been improper reward for Australia's wholehearted endeavour, but the build-up gave telling indication of France's attacking potential. Deschamps must be hoping that from now on they can rely on that without recourse to the video suite.
Sunday Indo Sport