Marseille (AFP) – Didier Deschamps praised the persistence of his French side after late goals from Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet steered the Euro 2016 hosts to a 2-0 win over Albania on Wednesday.
But Deschamps admitted there were still areas in which France could improve despite starting the tournament with back-to-back victories.
Substitute Griezmann broke stubborn Albanian resistance with a 90th-minute header in Marseille before Payet scored deep into injury time as France became the first team to secure their place in the last 16.
“This is becoming a bit of a habit, I’d prefer us to break the deadlock a bit earlier,” Deschamps said.
“But we finished the game very well, we can improve on things, but what we did (Wednesday) was good.
“It was tricky for everyone, Albania played with heart and spirit, they tried to score, they countered very quickly, but in the second half we were more aggressive.”
France began their bid for a third European Championship title — following triumphs in 1984 and 2000 — with a nervous 2-1 win over Romania last Friday.
But despite creating a host of scoring chances against Balkan minnows Albania in a stirring second half on Wednesday, the game looked set for a surprise draw.
Until the closing stages it had been a frustrating night for France.
With Manchester United’s Anthony Martial and Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman starting in place of Griezmann and Paul Pogba, France struggled to break down a well-drilled Albanian side.
Their Italian coach Gianni De Biasi had signalled before the game that his team would try to counter-attack, and Albania constantly threatened on the break in the first half, particularly from Napoli defender Elseid Hysaj down the right, and Ermir Lenjani down the left.
– Super sub –
Deschamps conceded both Griezmann and Pogba were unhappy to be dropped from the starting XI, but tried to justify his selection.
“Griezmann had a busy season, we have three games in nine days, and he played 60 minutes (against Romania),” said Deschamps.
Martial and Coman both took time to settle, the former well-patrolled by Hysaj, although the Bayern star, who turned 20 on Monday, almost scored at the start of the second half, heading just wide.
Pogba replaced Martial for the start of the second half, helping the hosts to an improved performance against a backdrop of raucous noise from both sets of supporters at the first competitive match for Les Bleus at the Stade Velodrome since France’s triumphant 1998 World Cup campaign.
It was Payet though who was the main conduit for French danger throughout, orchestrating waves of attacks through a tiring Albanian rearguard, but the deadlock continued until Griezmann made his move.
A replacement for Coman, he rose with perfect timing in the 90th minute to meet Adil Rami’s cross from the right and place a header wide of Etrit Berisha.
“Some people were doubting him but once again Griezmann showed what he can do,” Deschamps said.
“I know he would have preferred to start, but often players coming off the bench make the difference, I change things based on what I feel, I have solutions on the bench to improve the team’s performance”.
Six minutes later the outstanding Payet, awarded man-of-the-match for the second game in a row, scored his second of the tournament to wrap up a hard-fought three points.
Like his late winner against Romania, cutting in from the wing, this time from the right, he curled past the keeper’s far post, sending the Stade Velodrome crowd into raptures.
“We have got six points, we have qualified, clearly we didn’t do everything well, but if you have seen a team that has please tell me as I’ve watched the games as well,” Deschamps said.