France 5 Iceland 2: France have finally come alive at Euro 2016 after producing a mercurial five-goal performance, ruthless and majestic in equal measure, to end Iceland’s fairytale and set up a semi-final against world champions Germany that has the potential to be the contest of the tournament so far.
Two goals from Olivier Giroud, on a night when he turned jeers to cheers, as well as from Paul Pogba, Dimitri Payet, and Antoine Griezmann — all of them exquisitely finished — sent Didier Deschamps’ men on the way to a thrilling 5-2 victory, ending dreams that Iceland, having beaten England, could become the Leicester City of Europe and actually lift the trophy.
The fact that they won’t — or that they departed with a heavy defeat — should not tarnish the memory of what has been an incredible tournament for a team ranked total underdogs before they arrived in France and which has provided European football with a breath of fresh air.
In fact Iceland, who fielded the same team for the fifth game in a row, have put so much into this tournament physically and emotionally that there was always a possibility this match would prove to be one to many for a team with such an intense work ethic and carrying so many physical scars of battle.
No fewer than nine of the starting 11 arrived in Paris with a booking to their name — and of course an underlying fear that one wrong step could rob them of a semi-final appearance should they be cautioned again.
In the end those cards made no difference because although Iceland battled admirably this might was about France and the potential of a team that is growing by the game. Deschamps’ side may have begun slowly, requiring late goals to beat Albania and Romania and being held by Switzerland in Group A, but thet are now beginning to look like serious and worthy contenders for the title.
Once France took the lead after 12 minutes it was always a big ask for the smallest country ever to qualify for a major finals to overturn the hosts and push back against the heavy momentum coming their way.
The opening goal came courtesy of Arsenal’s Giroud, a man who has had to endure intense criticism of his performances this year and who has even been booed on occasions by his own fans on the international stage. But, just as in the opening game of the tournament against Romania, he was the hero here, collecting a clever ball over the top from Blaise Matuidi and then calmly firing his shot through the legs of Iceland goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson.
The second goal, in the 20th minute, however, was all down to the inspiration of Pogba, the midfielder wanted by every big club in the world with a transfer budget that stretches to €100m — and that includes Manchester United. He rose superbly at the far post, leaping a metre above marker Jon Dadi Bodvarsson to head into the top corner and leave Iceland requiring something extra special, even by their standards, to save their fairytale from ending.
It did end, however, when a third goal, from West Ham’s Dimitri Payet, fizzed into Halldorsson’s net, the midfielder’s left foot shot from just outside the box cleverly cut into the opposite corner.
Number four wasn’t far behind as Griezmann, possibly France’s most consistent performer this summer, raced through the middle unchallenged to collect a Pogba through-ball and beat Halldorsson with a beautiful chip. Payet knelt before his teammate and kissed Griezmann’s left boot in a celebration much enjoyed by the home crowd; but for Iceland it felt more like midnight had tolled and Cinderella’s ball was finally over.
The idea of Aron Gunnarsson hurling in those long throws in a Euro 2016 final had been a dream worthy of this year of magical results, but in the end the boot didn’t quite fit.
There was, at least, a moment or two for Iceland fans to remember in the second half as their team produced a 56th-minute goal, Kolbeinn Sigthorsson turning in a low cross from Gylfi Sigurdsson at the near post. But once Giroud headed home a free-kick from Payet, effortlessly beating his marker, the night was effectively over.
The Arsenal man, named man of the match, cupped his hand to his ear, gestured at the crowd to cheer and got his wish, receiving a rousing reception when substituted for Andre-Pierre Gignac.
There was still time for Hugo Lloris to make a point-blank save from a powerful Sverirr Ingason header and for Iceland to create several opportunities from set-pieces — perhaps the one area of concern for France as they prepare for bigger tests.
The fact that Deschamps took off Laurent Koscielny in favour of Ellliaguim Mangala suggests he, too, has that in mind — and he won’t have been pleased to see Birkir Bjarnson head home a Skulason cross to snatch Iceland a second consolation goal.
By that time, Iceland had brought on veteran Eidur Gudjohnsen, the ex Chelsea and Barcelona striker, for an emotional farewell.
He, and his team, will be missed here in France, but their departure does set up a mouthwatering semi-final in Marseille on Thursday. Euro 2016 is reaching a fascinating conclusion, and France are arguably the team with most momentum.
Lloris 6; Sagna 7, Umtiti 7, Koscielny 6 (Mangala 70: 6), Evra 6; Pogba 8, Matuidi 7; Sissoko 7, Griezmann 8, Payet 8 (Coman 80); Giroud 8 (Gignac 60; 6)
Halldorsson 5; Saevarsson 6, Arnason 5 (Ingason 46; 6), R Sigurdsson 7, Skulason 6; Gudmundsson 6, A Gunnarson 7, G Sigurdsson 6, B Bjarnason 7; Sigthorsson 7 (Gudjohnsen 83), Bodvarsson 6 (Finnbogasson 46; 7)
Bjorn Kuipers (Netherland)
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