Paris (AFP) – An extended 24-team format was always going to make Euro 2016 a marathon not a sprint and, inspired by pre-tournament golden boy Paul Pogba, hosts France may be timing their run for the line perfectly.
Pogba was to the fore, scoring his side’s second goal as France dismantled England’s conquerors Iceland 5-2 at Paris’ Stade de France in the quarter-finals Sunday, a week to the day from the final at the same venue.
The hopes of an expectant nation will now rise to a crescendo ahead of a blockbuster clash against old foes and world champions Germany in Marseille in the last four on Thursday.
Most importantly for coach Didier Deschamps after an underwhelming route to the quarter-finals, all his stars are beginning to shine with Dimitri Payet and Antoine Griezmann also on target, while the often-criticised Olivier Giroud scored twice.
Pogba personified a France side coming good at the right time. The Juventus midfielder, rumoured to be making a return to Jose Mourinho’s Manchester United for a potential world record fee this week, finally had the swagger of a man tipped to take the tournament by storm.
Nothing illustrated that better than his goal.
The last facet of the game Iceland would have envisaged conceding from was set-pieces.
Yet Pogba bullied Jon Dadi Bodvarsson out of the way to send a towering header into the top corner to open the floodgates with France’s second goal.
It hasn’t always been an easy ride through the Euros for Pogba.
Twenty-three nights ago as France opened the competition he was unceremoniously substituted by Deschamps with his side looking for a winner against an obdurate Romania.
– Deschamps warning –
They were rescued that night by Payet’s stunning last-minute winner, but that didn’t prevent Deschamps taking aim at Pogba.
“I’m not going to be too hard on him but clearly his potential is such that he can contribute a lot more,” came the warning shot from a disgruntled coach.
Deschamps followed up on his threat by dropping Pogba, and surprisingly, Griezmann for France’s second game against Albania.
Both made amends by coming on to turn the game as Griezmann and Payet netted in the final moments to secure a nervy 2-0 win.
Even then Pogba didn’t escape scrutiny and criticism, though, as a vengeful pump of the arm — apparently directed at the press box — caused a media furore.
Former England international Gary Lineker even joined his list of detractors, tweeting: “Is Pogba the world’s most overrated player?”
Pogba’s over-exuberance also nearly cost France dear a week ago when he conceded a penalty inside the first minute against the Republic of Ireland.
Like Payet on opening night, Griezmann saved the day with a quickfire double to down the Irish.
However, a French side that had until now survived on moments of individual brilliance, suddenly clicked into a free-flowing unit in Paris to bring Iceland’s fairytale run to a crashing halt.
Griezmann added France’s fourth before half-time to become the tournament’s top scorer with four goals.
Payet had already added his third of Euro 2016 by that point and a double for Giroud means France now have three of the top five scorers in the competition.
And behind them they have a revitalised Pogba preparing the ammunition with which to fire.
With such an array of attacking talent in fine form, even mighty Germany should be concerned.
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