France have made a habit of leaving things late at Euro 2016. Although they did not do so as they dispatched Republic of Ireland with a 2-1 win from the competition in the last 16, they suffered arguably more anxiety than in any match of the tournament to date.
Robbie Brady’s penalty in the second minute had Didier Deschamps’ side rocking, and after a tepid 55 minutes they were very much on the ropes. With Paul Pogba still misfiring, les Bleus needed a hero, and they found just that in the form of Antoine Griezmann, whose double around the hour mark transformed the match and paved the way to the quarter-finals.
The 25-year-old has enjoyed the best season of his life in Spain, scoring 32 times in 54 appearances. It was, however, tarnished by a missed penalty in the Champions League final, which Diego Simeone’s men lost to Real Madrid after a shootout.
Overcoming that disappointment was always likely to be a stern test for the attacker, but he has recovered from a poor opening outing against Romania to become one of the talismans for France.
It was Griezmann's header that proved the catalyst to victory over Albania, and it was replicated in a timely fashion against Ireland to salvage qualification just as it seemed France’s dreams were becoming a nightmare.
Les Bleus were utterly out of sorts for long periods of the encounter at Parc OL. During the first period, even relatively simple passes went hopelessly astray as the hosts appeared both crippled by nerves and shaken by the intense manner in which their opponents harried and chased them.
During these 45 minutes, the artisans got the better of the artists, who were frustrated by the streetwise approach of their rivals. France's star men were ineffective, with Pogba, moved to the left of midfield to mirror the role he plays with Juventus, unable to find his form after conceding a naive early penalty.
That clumsy challenge set the tone for France’s first half, which was their worst of the tournament, despite the shrewd play of their guests.
Although Deschamps’ men started the second period in a more up-tempo and positive manner, reinvigorated by the pace and trickery of substitute Kingsley Coman, they rarely threatened to find the net before Griezmann’s fine header was too powerful for Darren Randolph to keep out. Moments later the Atletico Madrid attacker beat the former Motherwell goalkeeper once again, this time after a rare defensive lapse from the Ireland centre-backs.
Griezmann might've had a third had he not been tripped by Shane Duffy when he was clean through little more than 18 yards out only moments after bagging his second. The defender, who had been so robust until five minutes previous, correctly saw red.
Once ahead, France clicked into top gear for the first time at the Euros, and now Deschamps must aim for his squad to maintain that level – and the Atletico Madrid forward is sure to be at the front of their renewed charge.