It wasn’t meant to be this way. The French were meant to cruise through the early stages of the tournament, reaffirming their credentials in front of their home fans. Their opponent was Romania, and the stage was set for France to win easily, never looking like conceding and putting a few goals in at the other end. But it was late, with less than ten minutes left, and France were stuck at 1-1. Antoine Griezmann had been irrelevant, and had been replaced. Paul Pogba had been like a ghost, occasionally threatening to leave his mark but failing to do so. He had been replaced. Romania, despite their lack of star power, looked difficult to break down. The sides looked headed for a draw, a result which would have left a massive dent in France’s confidence. It wasn’t meant to be this way.
Enter Dimitri Payet. A player who has always shown promise, but finally realised it this season through his performances with West Ham United. All game he had been the conductor. In the first half, he handed Griezmann two brilliant chances, and but for some wonderful work from Cristian Sapunaru the Atletico Madrid frontman would have opened the scoring. In the end it was Payet who created the first goal, a well-placed cross catching Ciprian Tatarusanu out of position and allowing Olivier Giroud to put the ball into the back of an empty net. Yet that was irrelevant now. All that mattered was the scoreline, which read 1-1, and the only goal that was relevant was the penalty, the mistake from Patrice Evra which cost his side the lead. Payet had been excellent, but it didn’t matter. It didn’t matter unless he could get his side a goal.
He did. Payet scored a goal that is a contender for the goal of the tournament, placing an unstoppable shot into the top left. Romania were defending brilliantly, but there was nothing they could have done. Payet collected the ball outside the box. He took one touch, ever so slightly away from his own goal, and curled the ball into the net. It sounds simple, but Payet’s goal was anything but. It was an exquisite finish, a goal that is only seen every so often, one that sticks in the memory as much for the context of the strike as for the strike itself. It was a beautiful goal, scored with the whole of Europe watching. It set France at ease, and it is a goal that could well be remembered long after this tournament has finished. It was the kind of goal that can make you forget about everything that had happened previously in the game, and it was all that mattered when the final whistle blew.
The win will give France confidence that is possibly undeserved, as it was a very lucky escape. Things never went completely right for them, and they should have conceded within five minutes after some poor defence at a corner. Bogdan Stancu was facing an open goal inside the six-yard box, but Hugo Lloris made an incredible save to keep the game level. France regained the ascendency, but Romania were still a threat because of the quality of their chances. The French were lucky when a foul by Laurent Koscielny went unnoticed, and Stancu had another golden opportunity when he found himself one-on-one with Lloris early in the second half. Romania had threatened, but they did not look like getting an equaliser. Then came the penalty. Viktor Kassai may have missed Koscielny’s foul on Florin Andone, but he was in a perfect position to see Evra’s clumsy challenge on Nicolae Stanciu, and the penalty was awarded. Stancu stepped up to take the penalty, and he was completely calm as he slotted it past Lloris.
But none of that matters for the French now. They won, albeit luckily, and they have begun to lay the foundations for a strong run at the final tournament. Their highly rated stars went missing, but it didn’t make a difference as Payet dragged them over the line. There are issues which need to be sorted out if they are to win the tournament, but they got the job done.
Saint-Denis – Stade de France
France 2 (Giroud 58, Payet 89)
Romania 1 (Stancu 65 pen)
Referee: Viktor Kassai (Hun)
France (4-3-3): Lloris – Sagna, Rami, Koscielny, Evra; Pogba (Martial 77), Kante, Matuidi; Griezmann (Coman 66), Giroud, Payet (Sissoko 90+2).
Romania (4-3-3): Tatarusanu – Sapunaru, Chiriches, Gragore, Rat; Stanciu (Chipciu 72), Hoban, Pintilli; Popa (Torje 82), Andone (Alibec 61), Stancu.
1. Dimitri Payet (France)
Payet was comfortably better than any other player on the field, and the goal which he scored to deliver France victory was thoroughly deserved. From the start of the game he was France’s main creator, and he was a huge problem for the Romanian defence throughout. He created chances from the left, the right and the centre, and he was the sole reason France were able to get away with a win.
2. Vlad Chiriches (Romania)
Chiriches had some disciplinary issues throughout the game, and was lucky not to be sent off, but he had a strong all-round game and was Romania’s best. He saved a near-certain goal to Griezmann when he dealt with a dangerous cross from Payet, and the leadership he showed throughout was excellent.
3. Olivier Giroud (France)
Giroud tried very hard for the French, and could well have come away from the game with a hat-trick. He was always an aerial threat, and his work finding space in the area was undone by some poor finishing. He got his goal early in the second half after getting into a dangerous attacking position, and he was a constant threat for the Romanian defence.
4. Adil Rami (France)
Rami was a late inclusion in the French squad after an injury to Raphael Varane, and while he was nervous he played flawlessly in the centre of defence, making some crucial challenges and getting into strong positions. He managed to keep his nerves in check, and he is likely to stay at the heart of the French defence for the rest of the tournament.
5. Florin Andone (Romania)
Romania did not have as many opportunities as the French did, but Andone was able to remain a constant threat and created some problems for the French defence. His work at set pieces was especially dangerous, and it was his header in the fourth minute which set up a brilliant opportunity for Stancu. He was subbed off with half an hour left to play, but he left his mark.