SAINT-DENIS: The Icelandic thunderclap roar proved no match for the sheer talent of France as the hosts finally showed their title credentials at the European Championship on Sunday.
A crushing 5-2 victory lined up a semifinal with Germany as France displayed the attacking ruthlessness that had been missing in its previous four games at the tournament.
“We have a lot of desire to get our own back for what happened at the World Cup,” France striker Olivier Giroud said of the quarterfinal loss to eventual champion Germany two years ago.
Was it only six weeks ago Giroud was being jeered by his own supporters? When Giroud cupped his ears to the crowd after scoring his second goal on Sunday, the striker seemed to revel in silencing his critics.
And yet only national unity is on the mind of Giroud as France prepares for its first tournament semifinal in a decade on Thursday.
“I am delighted for the players as they deserve this, and for these fans who have been behind us for months,” the Arsenal striker said magnanimously through a translator.
“To be able to offer them something to make them smile and feel happy.”
And yet Iceland left the Stade de France far from browbeaten. An embarrassing exit was on the cards at halftime when France led 4-0.
But the Nordic newcomers recovered the resolve that has seen them charm and captivate the continent over the last month.
Two second-half goals allowed the smallest nation to ever qualify for a major tournament to leave with their heads held high. “We didn’t handle it well mentally (in the first half),” joint-coach Lars Lagerback said.
“But we showed in the second half it wasn’t something physical in the team, we reloaded.”
The night began with rain descending on the field and the Viking slow capping ritual, with its “Huh” chant, booming around the stadium from the Iceland fans.
France wasn’t going to have its home stadium to itself and Gylfi Sigurdsson even had the game’s first shot although it was easily saved by France captain Hugo Lloris.
But inspirational chants and a strong team ethic only take a team so far.
This was a night of French superiority; when stature and skill of the hosts was too mighty to curb. The Iceland defense was breached with ease in the 12th minute when Blaise Matuidi lofted over a high pass into the path of the advancing Giroud, who clinically shot through the legs of goalkeeper Hannes Halldorsson.
Then, Paul Pogba soared above Jon Dadi Bodvarsson to meet Antoine Griezmann’s corner and send a powerful header into the top corner in the 20th.
Pogba’s leap was matched almost immediately by one from French President Francois Hollande in the VIP seats. Worse was to come for the Icelanders with quick-fire goals inside two minutes before halftime.
Moussa Sissoko’s cross was headed down by Giroud and Griezmann knocked the ball into the path to Dimitri Payet, who drilled a low shot in the corner of the net.
The fourth goal saw Giroud and Griezmann combine again. Griezmann raced onto Giroud’s flick-on before dinking a shot over the advancing Halldorsson.
Payet went over to kiss the left boot of Griezmann, the team’s top scorer with four goals at Euro 2016.
However, just like its raucous fans, Iceland wasn’t done. Gylfi Sigurdsson whipped in a cross and Kolbeinn Sigthorsson slid past Samuel Umtiti, the Barcelona-bound defender making his France debut, to poke the ball over the line in the 56th.
Would it be the start of an astonishing comeback? No. The four-goal cushion was restored by Giroud within three minutes, connecting with Payet’s free kick to glance a header into the net. “I felt really good physically right from the start,” Giroud said.
“We are used to making bad starts … but we were very clinical, which is nice from a personal perspective.
But Iceland had the final say on the night, with Birkir Bjarnason evading Patrice Evra to head Lloris.
“Iceland didn’t give up at any stage,” Giroud said.
“They were a very valiant and determined side who kept on going until the end.”
And its fans remained chanting in their seats long after the final whistle, taking in the surroundings.
It was an unforgettable tournament debut by Iceland, drawing against Poland before eliminating England _ an achievement that will be remembered along with the feats of the new European champion, to be crowned back at the Stade de France next Sunday. Agencies