World Cup: Reinvented Griezmann key to breaking down Morocco in semi-final

France's Antoine Griezmann has three assists at this World Cup, the joint highest along with Portugal's Bruno Fernandes. PHOTO: REUTERS

DOHA – Antoine Griezmann, midfield general. Those four words next to each other would not make sense before the World Cup but, ahead of France’s semi-final with Morocco on Wednesday, they resonate with football fans the world over.

Griezmann, former winger, then second striker, has been a sensation in his newest role as the conductor of Les Bleus’ three-man midfield.

He will be vital in unpicking a mean Moroccan backline that has conceded just once – an own goal – in five matches in Qatar.

France coach Didier Deschamps on Tuesday sang his praises, calling him a game changer “because he’s so hard-working and so technically gifted” and gushing over his “wonderful” left foot.

That left foot created both France’s goals in their 2-1 win over England in their quarter-final last Sunday, taking them closer to becoming the first team since Brazil (1958, 1962) to win back-to-back Cups.

Deschamps deserves a huge part of the credit for having the vision to spot Griezmann’s potential in a withdrawn role, and also for his unwavering loyalty.

He stuck by Griezmann even as he floundered after an ill-fitting £108 million (S$180 million) move from Atletico Madrid to Barcelona in 2019.

Also, when he languished on the bench after returning on loan to Atletico, who were trying to avoid triggering a clause that would see them incurring a €40 million (S$57.2 million) fee if the player hit a set number of minutes.

Throughout all these struggles at club level, Griezmann, who turns 32 in March, has been Deschamps’ first name on the team sheet.

The virtuoso performance against England was his 72nd appearance in a row for France. The previous record was Patrick Vieira’s 44 consecutive games.

“He (Griezmann) has been an elite player for 10 years now,” said Deschamps. “Of course, he’s gone through challenging times like any player, but he’s mentally very strong. Like all world-class players, he’s at his best in the most important games.”

Griezmann is grateful for his coach’s trust, saying he “owes him everything”.

“I give everything for France, for the shirt but also for him,” said the player. “And I am trying to do everything I can so he keeps trusting me. Every move, every game is like a ‘thank you’ that I am sending him. I want him to be proud of me.”

Griezmann’s role in Qatar was borne out of necessity. The 2018 World Cup-winning midfield trio of N’Golo Kante, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba were all either injured or too old, meaning Deschamps had to look for alternatives.

Real Madrid’s Aurelien Tchouameni, 22, has been a sound replacement for Kante as the base of the midfield, while Juventus’ Adrien Rabiot, 27, has ably filled Matuidi’s role with his energetic, powerful displays.

But France simply had no midfielder with the same profile as Pogba, who could boss the midfield and open up defences. Until Deschamps’ masterstroke to convert Griezmann.

His assists against England made him France’s all-time leader with 28 – two more than Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane.

As a result of his new responsibilities, Griezmann, who scored four goals in France’s 2018 triumph, has yet to find the net in Qatar but he insists he does “not worry about the goal”.

“The team needs me in the heart of the game, to be close to my defence when we don’t have the ball,” he said.

Perhaps those are signs of maturity and leadership that come with age – even for a player who retains his boyish charm, one who is addicted to the simulation game Football Manager and also popularised goal celebrations based on Fortnite dances.

According to L’Equipe, Griezmann delivered a stirring team talk at half-time during the England game, saying: “We may never play for a World Cup semi-final again – we all want to live it.

“We can’t go home tonight, guys. We have to do more.”

For France and Deschamps, Griezmann can always be counted on to do just that.

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