Antoine Griezmann overcomes slow Euro 2016 start to be France's leader
MARSEILLE, France -- Didier Deschamps may be a bit of a romantic at heart. As the last seconds of France's semifinal victory over Germany ebbed away, he chose to withdraw Antoine Griezmann from the fray and allowed the 25-year-old to stride off the pitch to a thunderous ovation from a delighted Velodrome. He deserved every last ripple of the applause.
This is a man who was reduced to tears by Germany's victory over France in 2014. A man who missed a penalty in the Champions League Final just six weeks ago, yet still had the courage to take another when his country needed him. A man who started the tournament so indifferently that he was dropped for the second game and didn't score his second of six goals until the knockout rounds began. And he is the man who, with two more goals to his collection, has sent France to the final in Paris. But afterward, he was keen to share the credit.
"It's a whole crew behind us," Griezmann said. "A load of work done by the physios, the staff and the players that haven't played any minutes but still work like crazy. It's a group effort. We're so thrilled to get to the final and we'll make the most of it tonight. I missed my penalty in the Champions League final and I wanted to make sure that hit the back of the net."
Griezmann is rapidly emerging as the man of the tournament, growing in confidence with every game. He skitters around the final third, little thrusts of pace pushing him into positions where he might find sustenance -- like a header down from Olivier Giroud, or a long ball over the top from Blaise Matuidi. He's always moving, always searching -- like a fox in your backyard after a particularly enthusiastic barbecue, convinced that there's a bit of sausage out there in the grass somewhere. On six occasions now, he has been proven right.
It's a far cry from the Griezmann we saw in the first game against Romania, nervously swinging at the ball, radiating anxiety at every turn. Deschamps might be a romantic, but knew he couldn't risk another performance like that in the second game against Albania. Griezmann was duly replaced by Antony Martial. He returned again for the meaningless third group game against Switzerland and did enough to retain his place for the first round of 16 against Ireland. And that's when his tournament burst into life.
Giroud will be mocked for aspects of his performance in Marseille, but it was back in Lyon versus the Irish that he helped unlock Griezmann's brilliance and set him on his way. Giroud's tireless work in the air, smashing into Shane Duffy and Richard Keogh and winning the knockdowns, gave his younger teammate the chance to run into space. Griezmann had already brought France back from a goal down with his own powerful header. Three minutes later, Giroud put him through and France were in front.
Their relationship began to flourish. "He's a little man who gives us a little bit extra," said Giroud in Marseille, before correcting himself. "A lot extra."
Giroud, of course, is not favoured by a comparison to the Atletico Madrid man, looking somehow even more glacial than usual. When Jerome Boateng inexplicably mistimed a header on the halfway line, the comparison looked even harsher. Griezmann would have been in the penalty area in seconds, looking to loft the ball over Manuel Neuer's head. Instead, as Giroud trundled into life, empires rose and fell, stars burst into their glorious death throes far away in the night sky, and Giroud plodded on like spaghetti sliding slowly down a kitchen wall. When the next opportunity like that emerges, all of France will pray it falls to Griezmann.
And now France return to Paris in search of victory and, perhaps, some degree of catharsis. Last November, while her brother was playing for France against Germany at the Stade de France, Griezmann's sister was caught up in the Paris terror attacks. Maud Griezmann escaped the Bataclan Theatre unharmed but 89 people were killed. Eight months later, memories and emotions surrounding that awful night will continue to be revisited. Griezmann, though, will seek to maintain the focus he has shown throughout.
"Just before the Romania match, the President came to talk to us about the security measures in and around the stadium and we were pretty calm. It was our duty to win the matches to entertain the French people and go all the way. That's what we needed to do as the French national side."
And now they are just a single step away from glory. One win against a Portugal side that, whatever its strengths or weaknesses, is certainly a less foreboding prospect than Germany.
"We're like kids," grinned Griezmann. "There's a whole country behind us and we have to give 100 percent for them.
"Now we have to win the final."
Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.