KEIR RADNEDGE in MARSEILLE: France, marginally outplayed for most of the first half, dug deep into vast reserves of combative spirit and self-belief to capitalise on a controversial penalty and defeat Germany 2-0 to reach Sunday’s final of Euro 2016 in the Stade de France against Portugal.
Two goals from Atletico Madrid striker Antoine Griezmann – making him the tournament’s six-goal leading marksman – took the eye. But he was supported by superb peformances from Paul Pogba in midfield, Laurent Koscielny and Samuel Umititi in the heart of defence and – not least for some crucial saves – from goalkeeper/captain Hugo Lloris.
The French hosts had had to defy a weight of statistics along the way. But, given the history between the two teams, they will believe they deserved a little fortune after Italian referee Nicola Rizzoli penalised Bastian Schweinsteiger for handball in the first minute of first half stoppage time.
Griezmann rattled home the penalty, for his fifth goal of the tournament then struck his decisive sixth midway through the second half after the German defence, in an uncharacteristic panic, lost possession of the ball in their own penalty box.
The two old rivals had met four times in major tournaments over the past 58 years, albeit never in the European Championship, only in the World Cup. Les Bleus had won only the first time, a 6-3 victory in the third place play-off in 1958 in Sweden, a symmetrical 58 years ago.
French confidence for a reversal of fortunes in search of the right to meet Portugal in the Stade de France on Sunday was based on home advantage, particularly in football-mad Marseille, and a perception that Germany were not as sure-footed as in 2014.
So it proved.
French manager Didier Descamps set up his team to attack and the opening 10 minutes were frenetic. The players all appeared to be stuck on the fast-forward button with the French the more focused in the pinball chaos of it all.
They should have taken the lead in only the sixth minute. Griezmann exchanged delicate passes with Blaise Matuidi and wriggled into space in the penalty box only to scuff his shot and allow Manuel Neuer to scramble a save to his left.
Gradually the Germans began to control possession and lower the pace. They nearly had their own reward. First Thomas Muller, at speed, sliced a shot wide then Emre Can’s bouncing drive drew a fine, full-stretch right-handed save from Lloris.
Griezmann hit the side net and then only a superb saving block from Benedikt Howedes denied Olivier Giroud before France took the lead.
A right-wing corner from Griezmann lured Schweinsteiger into leading with an arm in a messy clearance attempt. Referee Rizzoli immediately pointed to the penalty spot and booked the German captain amid the world champions’ protests.
Griezmann, who had missed a crucial penalty in the Champions League Final, sent Neuer the wrong way and France into the dressing rooms with a halftime lead.
More trouble assailed the World Cup holders after 15 minutes of the second half when key central defender Jerome Boateng was injured in hitting the ball upfield in an innocous moment of play. He had to be helped off and substituted by Shkodran Mustafi.
That change was enforced. Immediately afterwards came one of choice. Germany had to chase the game. To that end coach Joachim Low took off defensive midfielder Can and sent on World Cup-winning striker Mario Gotze. Deschamps responded by replacing Payet with Leicester City anchor man Ngolo Kante.
Almost immediately France went futher ahead. The Germans, in a panic, were caught out in their own penalty box. The superb Pogba crossed, Neuer could only palm the ball forward under pressure from Giroud, and Griezmann jabbed it back between the falling goalkeeper’s legs and into the net.
Germany made a further attacking change, bringing on Leroy Sane for the spent Schweinsteiger. They went close several times. Joshua Kimmich hit a post and Julian Draxler and Howedes were narrowly off target but it was all desperate stuff. France had the goals and the safety cushion.
Just to rub it in, there was not even a consolation goal to reward all the Germans’ effort; in the second minute of stoppage time Lloris flew to his left to make a superb save to a Kimmich header.
As four years ago, Germany had fallen one game short of the final.
France, home winners in 1984, were within 90 minutes of repeating football history.
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