France’s Dimitri Payet and Albania star Ledian Memushaj arrived at UEFA EURO 2016 this month carrying the hopes of their respective nations, but those hopes sat squarely at two opposite sides of the spectrum.
Both are making their competition debuts this month, though while Payet is charged with leading the hosts all the way to the promised land, Memushaj is lining up for the tournament’s rank outsiders. His side had already made history simply by being there.
Payet had been the star of the first round of matches, setting up his side’s opener before smashing a sensational last-minute winner to save France’s blushes and earn a 2-1 victory over Romania on opening night.
Coach Didier Deschamps made the bold decision to drop global superstars Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann after their stuttering start, shifting to a 4-2-3-1 against Albania that gave Payet top billing.
But he was very nearly upstaged in what could have gone on to be one of the biggest shocks in Euros history. Seven minutes after the break, a diligent and disciplined performance from the minnows had the game goalless.
Memushaj had gone closer than anyone, his a wicked free-kick that skimming the crossbar just before half-time.
France were once again struggling to find their groove. And then came an Albanian free-kick into the box. Memushaj attacked and bundled the ball past Hugo Lloris, but it bounced agonisingly back off the post.
Albania were not here just to make up the numbers. There had not been a single shot on target and Memushaj has so nearly opened the scoring.
France needed their new talisman to get them going again. Payet obliged just a few minutes later, picking up the ball on the left and bending in a delightful cross to pick out substitute Pogba at the back post, but the Juventus man couldn’t keep his shot down.
It was the moment when the momentum shifted once and for all. Everything went through Payet, as the French came again and again.
With ten minutes to go he held off challenges from three Albanian defenders to send in a cross that led to a Bacary Sagna volley whistling over the bar.
Two minutes later another perfect Payet set-piece delivery saw Koscielny head over. It was wave after wave of Payet-inspired attacks and the pressure eventually told when substitute Griezmann headed home in the last minute of normal time.
Not content, Payet capped his performance with a wonderful solo goal in the 96th minute to become the first French player since Zinedine Zidane in 2004 to have had a hand in three goals for France at the EURO finals.
After a narrow 1-0 defeat to Switzerland in their opening game, Memushaj and Albania have done themselves proud on their EURO debut.
But it’s the Frenchman who continues to shine brightest. It’s proving to be quite the UEFA EURO debut for Dimitri Payet.
You could also make your debut at UEFA EURO 2016 by showing your passion in a photo on Twitter or Facebook using the hashtag #MakeYourDebut to win a pair of tickets. There are lots of different match tickets for grabs, so go and enter now!