Didier Deschamps has frequently faced accusations that he makes his world champions France unpalatably dull considering the enviable attacking talent at his disposal.
Maybe boredom trumps humiliation.
You could call sending his players out to take on Switzerland in an unfamiliar 3-4-3 formation plenty of things, given very few of them appeared to have the foggiest idea what they were supposed to be doing. But it certainly wasn’t dull.
By half-time in a Euro 2020 last-16 tie that looked a formality on paper, France were 1-0 down and had not managed a shot on target.
Even allowing for the disorganisation, uncertainty and flailing team-mates playing out of position behind them, this spoke poorly of the dream Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann forward line.
A magic triangle to rival the celebrated magic square, or carre magique, of Michel Platini, Jean Tigana, Luis Fernandez and Alan Giresse that inspired France to European Championship glory in 1984 appeared to have few tricks up their sleeve. For one of them, their night in Bucharest would get far, far worse.
Haris Seferovic’s dominant header made mincemeat of Clement Lenglet and France’s dubious defensive positioning in general, but the manner in which Benzema, Mbappe and Griezmann were caught watching events unfold – not attempting to get back goal side before the ball was worked out to Steven Zuber for his fourth assist of the tournament – reflected some combination of disorganisation and disinterest.
“It was a disaster, this first-half,” Deschamps former international team-mate Patrick Vieira told ITV at the interval. “We can talk about the organisation, the new system, but there is a positive attitude to have.”
The system was ripe for the bin, regardless, and Kingsley Coman came on for the embattled Lenglet. Benjamin Pavard celebrated being back in his more familiar right-back position by clattering into Zuber and conceding a penalty.
Handily for Deschamps, his captain Hugo Lloris is rarely anything other than entertaining. A raking pass to set up Griezmann’s goal against Hungary was followed by him punching Danilo Pereira in the head to give up a spot-kick in the 2-2 draw against Portugal.
Lloris got a fleeting look at a pair of Cristiano Ronaldo penalties in that game, but Ricardo Rodriguez’s left-footed strike from 12 yards lacked the power or disguise necessary to outfox Tottenham’s number one. It was the sort of moment that can haunt a career.
Then the magic happened. Griezmann found Mbappe, whose pass was under hit and behind Benzema. The Real Madrid striker brilliantly brought it under his spell with a Bergkamp-esque piece of skill and finished emphatically.
The trio who cowered towards the left channel ineffectively before half-time had burst into life. Griezmann completed a give-and-go with Mbappe and chipped to the back post for Benzema to nod in. Four minutes and two seconds after Rodriguez’s penalty was saved, France led 2-1.
It was easy to ask why Deschamps doesn’t take the handbrake off more often when Paul Pogba’s stunning 25-yard strike brought the house down. Well, we had our answer when the roof fell in on France.
Seferovic found some more vintage centre-forward play to head his second before Pogba was ransacked in midfield and Granit Xhaka’s majestic pass located a touch and finish to match from substitute Mario Gavranovic.
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Coman hit the crossbar in injury time and Pavard was superbly denied by Yann Sommer in extra time as Mbappe’s radar remained curiously off.
He slashed dreadfully into the side-netting after injury had denied Benzema the chance of a hat-trick. Coman crafted that chance but limped off immediately after, continuing the sense of an improbable unravelling. Griezmann was already on the sidelines, having been sacrificed to protect the result in normal time.
Despite weary legs and minds, nine immaculate penalties followed, meaning it fell to Mbappe after 14 shots and no goals in the tournament. The one remaining star forward was asked to save his side, facing the sort of moment to haunt a career.
Never before can this superman footballer have felt so hopelessly human in his stellar young career. Sommer sensed his moment, sprung to his right and clawed away France’s claims on sporting immortality.
Back-to-back World Cups would secure such a status and expect Mbappe to be more like himself again by Qatar 2022. One-and-a-half years of pandemic football has sapped everyone.
Deschamps’ contract will also keep him in place until then and the stew of confusion and chaos served up in Bucharest is likely to prompt further caution. Despite leading his players to the top of the mountain three years ago, it somehow feels like he’s selling them short.
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