MARSEILLE: France became the first team assured of a place in the knockout stage of Euro 2016 when two more late, late goals came to their rescue.
Les Bleus were staring at the horrible prospect of a goalless draw against the 250-1 outsiders of Albania in Group A in Marseille when Antoine Griezmann struck in the 89th minute and Dmitri Payet – the last-minute match-winner against Romania last Friday – followed up in stoppage time to clinch a 2-0 win
Dissatisfaction with France’s performance in the Opening Match had prompted manager Didier Deschamps to drop striker Griezmann and midfielder power player Paul Pogba.
Deschamps obviously thought that a short sharp shock might wake up their form but his decision not to give them a further opportunity to play themselves through the pressure and into the tournament very nearly backfired.
He switched Payet to the central support role behind centre-forward Olivier Giroud and brought in youngsters Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial.
However, instead of providing youthful urgency they offered merely naivety against a resolute Albanian team who left only striker Armando Saduki upfield and made no secret of an intention to hold France at bay for the full 90 minutes.
Martial had one shot blocked in the first half and Giroud was twice badly off target – and prospects did not look much brighter in the second half for all the increased French pressure.
Deschamps then went back to his original Plan A, bringing Pogba and Griezmann into the game but not with immediate effect. The Albanians continued to pack their penalty box and hold out until a devastating slip of concentration in the 89th minute.
Centre back Adil Rami crossed from the right and Griezmann, smallest player on the pitch, was left unmarked to rise and deflect the ball beyond keeper Etrit Berisha.
Albania now had no option but to do what they were not prepared for – to cross the halfway line in search of a goal. Space yawned open in their defence and West Ham winger Payet shimmying to his right before rifling home goal No2.
“Happy with the result and the goal after a bit of a nightmare,” said Griezmann afterwards. “But what mattered most of all was reaching the second round. That was the aim.”
Mission acomplished – just.