Two goals in the final five minutes gave France the perfect conclusion to another unconvincing display at EURO 2016, as the Les Bleus edged their way past lowly-ranked Albania 2-0 in Marseille to top Group A and guarantee themselves a spot in the last-16.
Substitute Antoine Griezmann and Dimitri Payet spared the tournament hosts’ blushes as Didier Deschamps’ men made it two wins from two this summer – becoming the first team to advance from the group stages.
Les Bleus boss Deschamps made some brave team changes before kick-off, dropping Paul Pogba and Griezmann after last Friday’s 2-1 win over Romania, providing Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman with starting spots.
Meanwhile the Reds and Blacks manager Giovanni De Biasi opted for three changes after their 1-0 loss to Switzerland last week. Suspended captain Lorik Cana was replaced by Arlind Ajeti, meanwhile Andi Lila and Ledian Memushaj came in for Odise Roshi and Taulant Xhaka.
After netting a late winner against Romania five days ago; midfielder Payet started the match how he left off last time, whipping in a lovely fourth minute free-kick, only for Olivier Giroud to head over.
But despite the early chance falling to the hosts, the much unfancied Albania more than held their own in Marseille, with Ermir Lenjani the first visitor to try his luck from 25 yards out, although the shot rose way above Hugo Lloris’ goal.
Other than Martial being unable to get a shot away from maestro Payet’s chipped through ball after 21 minutes, the first-half was dragged out with few and far goalscoring chances.
So much so; boss Deschamps decided to make a change at the interval, sending on Juventus star Pogba in place of Manchester United forward Martial for the hosts.
Shortly after the restart; Giroud, who has scored eight goals in his last six starts for his country, almost set up the game’s opening goal of the game, but winger Coman couldn’t quite reach his dangerous delivery.
However; it was in fact the Red and Blacks who came closest to breaking the deadlock, when an onrushing Memushaj beat Bacary Sagna in the French penalty area to get on the end of a cross – only for his effort to cannon back off the post.
The match soon erupted into end-to-end drama as substitute Pogba made his presence felt after meeting Payet’s delightful back post cross, only to blaze it over.
Sixty-three minutes on the clock; another Payet delivery, another offensive header – this time defender Laurent Koscielny couldn’t nod the ball goal bound.
Frustrated at being unable to find the breakthrough; manager Deschamps replaced Coman with Griezmann, before it was Les Bleus’ turn to hit the woodwork.
Finally Arsenal forward Giroud had beaten Albanian goalkeeper Etrit Berisha with a powerful header, but for the unfortunate Frenchman, it bounced off the outside of the near post.
Approaching the last ten minutes inside the Stade Velodrome, the majestic Payet was once again shuffling the ball at his feet before executing a deep cross, but full-back Sagna smashed his effort into the stands.
The West Ham ace then sent in another set-piece towards Albania’s six-yard area, but somehow centre-half Koscielny mistimed his header when it looked easier to hit the target. Eight minutes remaining.
But fear not; on the stroke of full-time, that all-important breakthrough finally, finally emerged.
After constantly knocking on Red and Blacks ‘keeper Etrit Berisha’s goal; Albania’s resolute defence finally caved in as Adil Rami picked up the ball on the right-hand side, he delivered a pinpoint cross into the path of substitute Griezmann, which the Atletico Madrid forward neatly headed away into the far corner to send the home supporters into raptures.
The deadlock had been broken at last. Albania hearts were also broken, whilst France’s blushes were spared against EURO 2016’s lowest-ranked participants.
But just as the crowd were still celebrating the opening goal, France delivered the ultimate knockout blow with a second killer goal in the sixth minute of added time.
Payet, who was undoubtedly man of the match in Marseille, picked up the ball on the edge of the 18-yard area after André-Pierre Gignac lost possession, before the central midfielder cleverly cut inside of his marker before unleashing the ball into the bottom corner. Game, set and match!
Man of the Match: Dimitri Payet (France)
Unquestionably Monday night’s man of the match, and quite rightly, probably the player of the tournament so far.
The magical midfielder was at the heart of every France attack this evening; whether that would be weaving his way between Albanians down the left-flank, whipping in a beautiful delivery or having a crack at goal himself.
We lost count of the number of chances the West Ham United ace created for the likes of Giroud and Koscielny due to his exquisite crosses. But after none of his teammates tucked them away; shortly after Griezmann’s dramatic opener, Payet went alone to cut inside the Red and Blacks penalty box before rifling the ball into the back of the net for the game’s second killer goal.
Payet was at the forefront of France’s 22 efforts on goal inside the Stade Velodrome. After his last-gasp winner against Romania, the ex-Marseille man followed it up with another late, late star-studded performance tonight.
Despite France being far from superior in their opening two games, the form and threat of their star midfielder shows Les Bleus possess real quality and Payet is poised to have a giant say in how far Deschamps’ can go in this competition.
What’s Next: Having already qualified for the last-16; hosts and Group A leaders France take on second-placed Switzerland on Sunday in the battle for top spot, meanwhile rock-bottom Albania face a must-win game against Romania in the other resulting fixture.