KEIR RADNEDGE in PARIS —- A superb 89th-minute strike from man of the match Dmitri Payet snatched a 2-1 victory for France over Romania in the Opening Match of Euro 2016 but the hosts will be desperately relieved at having taken all three points.
Their success delighted the 80,000 crowd but the manner of the struggle was not what their fans had expected to see. The Romanians would have been bitterly disappointed to see their intently-organised determination all go to waste, especially having struck back after conceding a 57th-minute goal to Olivier Giroud.
Bogdan Stancu equalised eight minutes later from the penalty spot to threaten to puncture the bubble of expectation inflated by France, their fans and their players in the two years between their quarter-final exit from the 2014 World Cup and the opportunity to strut their stuff on home soil.
Fortunately for the hosts the one man the Romanians never mastered was Payet and his winning strike was due punishment.
Hosts’ coach Didier Deschamps, a world and European champion captain as a player, had always known the road would not be simple. Not merely on the night but over the two-year lead-up to this moment of initial triumph.
The usual transfer and contract wrangles had been predictable but not the need to drop his favourite centre-forward over blackmail allegations.
Deschamps had decided that including Karim Benzema was not worth the risk to dressing room cohesion and the possibility of further ill-timed police or court interference in his preparations.
French federation president Noel Le Graet had been in favour of maintaining the Real Madrid striker on the presumption of innocence but Deschamps prevailed – and insisted he would be the one to tell the player.
The wisdom of that decision, amid all the other usual choices of personnel and tactics, was happily for Deschamps not an issue after a match which was the focus of worldwide attention not merely as the football festival but from curiosity and concern over all the other afflictions the host nation has been heir to.
Ahead of the match Deschamps had insisted that he wanted his team, winners of nine out of 10 of their last home matches, to press for a high tempo and an early goal.
Before they could attempt this, came the opening ceremony featuring can-can dancers, someone fitted out as a giant accordion, melon-slice cheese barges plus the French organisers’ musical favourite in the shape of DJ David Guetta and a mock-up Eiffel Tower preceded the anthems and kickoff.
If anything the French players appeared more overawed than the Romanians. They immediately forced a left-corner and Stancu was foiled at close range only because French skipper Hugo Lloris had spread his body across the goal-line.
France survived but learned the lesson quickly, chasing down the Romanians in midfield and forcing chances of their own. Giroud, in a nervous haste, jabbed Payet’s left-wing cross narrowly wide of one post and Antoine Griezmann struck the other with a header after Bacary Sagna’s right-side delivery prompted all sorts of defensive confusion.
Griezmann often found himself dropping deeper than with Atletico de Madrid but this had the advantage of allowing him to find space to capitalise on acceleration which continued to discomfit the Romanians.
A perfect illustration was just after the halfhour when he slipped forward and was unlucky his deflected shot clip the outside of Ciprian Tatarusanu’s left-hand post. Same again.
The second half began like a reprise of the first. Just as before, the slow-starting French defence was missing in action as Stancu controlled a right-wing cross on his chest but then hooked his unnecessarily hasty volley wide of an open goal.
That was in the 57th minute and the lead lasted only eight minutes before Patrice Evra lazily tipped over Nicolae Stanciu and Stancu made amends for his earlier failures by tucking the penalty away to Lloris’s left.
France brought the attacking flair of Kingsley Coman and Antony Martial into play to to try to disturb the Romanian organisation and commitment. But the hosts’ increasingly ragged efforts appeared all in vain until Payet twisted on a euro and fired a thunderous 25m drive far beyond an astonished Tatarusana and into the upper right-hand corner of his net.
Just in the nick of time.
France: Lloris – Sagna, Rami, Koscielny, Evra – Pogba (Martial 76), Nkante, Matuidi – Griezmann (Coman 66), Giroud, Payet (Sissoko 90).
Romania: Tatarusanu – Sapunaru, Chiriches, Grigore, Rat – Popa (Torje 81), Pintilli, Hoban, Stancu – Stanciu (Chipciu 72) – Andone (Alibec 61).
Referee: Kassai (Hungary)
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