Euro 2016

France eye sweep of group stage

France's Dimitri Payet celebrates after scoring their second goal in the match between France and Albania on June 15.
France's Dimitri Payet celebrates after scoring their second goal in the match between France and Albania on June 15. PHOTO: REUTERS

Payet and Griezmann give hosts fortuitous victory over Albania with last-gasp goals

MARSEILLE • France are not going to do this the easy way. They are going to do it biting their nails and shredding their nerves.

Just as in the opening game of Euro 2016, the hosts were presented with what seemed a straightforward task. Just as in the opening game, they made it everything but.

If Dimitri Payet was the hero of the 2-1 win over Romania last Friday, then the slender, fraught 2-0 victory over Albania was Antoine Griezmann's night.

The Atletico Madrid forward, along with Paul Pogba, had been rested by coach Didier Deschamps, eager to relieve the pressure on two of his brightest stars.

It did not work.

He needed both here, eventually, before Griezmann headed home in the last minute of normal time and Payet scored in the last minute of injury time to seal a win that sent the hosts through.

Deschamps' original plan had centred on allowing Payet a free role, with Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial, two of the brightest prospects in Europe, haring down the wings in support of Olivier Giroud.

The experiment lasted just 45 minutes.

As his players trudged in for half-time, expertly frustrated by an Albanian side of grit and no little guile, Pogba remained on the pitch with a coach, going through an extensive warm-up routine.

So much for trying to reduce the pressure on him: The SOS came after just one half without a goal.

Pogba came on at half-time and immediately injected new life into a French midfield that had struggled to create chances against the sort of well-organised, compact team which has been typical of the so-called minnows at Euro 2016.

And Griezmann, brought on midway through the second half, finally broke the stubborn Albanian resistance by heading in the first goal.

Deschamps himself agreed that the two had made the difference.

"We didn't do enough in the first half but the second half was a lot better. The players who came on made a difference," he said.

Griezmann said: "The coach told me before the match that I would not start and I was determined to help the team as best I could when I came on.

"That goal will help me a lot. What I have to do is concentrate on working close to the box because that's where I'm the most dangerous."

As Albania suffered their second consecutive defeat, France look ahead to their final Group A game against Switzerland with a clean sweep of victories in mind.

Giroud hopes any eventual goals in their final group fixture come earlier, but said: "We kept on wearing them down and in the end, they cracked.

"It's great to know that we have a tough mentality and that we're willing to go right to the end to get the goals.

"We all want to surpass ourselves in this competition in front of our fans and the whole of France.

"Maybe that little bit of extra spirit made the difference for us tonight. Now, we're looking to finish top of the group, although the games we have coming up will be difficult including the one against the Swiss."

AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE, THE TIMES, LONDON, REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 17, 2016, with the headline 'France eye sweep of group stage'. Print Edition | Subscribe