On Friday evening at the Stade de France, the host nation kicked off their Euro 2016 campaign against Romania with the expectation of three points to top Group A and a performance that would justify their standing as pre-tournament favourites.
For much of the 90 minutes, France played like a team who were struggling to cope with the weight of that expectation. Their nervy showing offered hope to a dogged Romanian side, but then the left foot of Dmitri Payet saved the blushes of Les Blues.
With the score at one a piece the West Ham forward struck a sensational 89th minute winner that ripped into the top corner of the Romanian net, and the 29-year-old – who was unfancied a year ago – capped off a exemplary performance as France’s star man.
Aside from being the match-winner, Payet had brilliant all night, he and N’Golo Kante rare players in blue shirts that had not struggled to cope with the magnitude of the occasion. When he was substituted moments later, Payet was overcome with emotion and shed tears as he walked off the pitch to a deserved standing ovation.
The stars of this French side had been billed as Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, but they did not cope with the pressure as Payet did. Pogba was often over-elaborate, whilst Griezmann misfired although did come close with a header that hit the post early on. It was Romania who had the best chance of the first half in fact, when just three minutes in Nicolae Stanciu found space at the back post off a corner that bamboozled French defenders. Stanciu struck from point-blank range, but Tottenham shot-stopper Hugo Lloris was down quickly to make an impressive save and the ball was cleared.
Olivier Giroud was looking just as sluggish as his strike partner Griezmann, but it would be the Arsenal striker who opened the scoring early in the second half. Giroud leaped to meet a cross from Payet – who else – and divert the ball past advancing Romanian keeper Ciprian Tatarusanu with the back of his head.
There would be major concerns however when Patrice Evra clumsily brought Stanciu down in the box just seven minutes later and Bogdan Stancu converted from the spot.
With the scores level, Griezmann and Pogba were replaced by Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial. It was all looking futile however, until Payet struck with a minute to go.
An important three points for France who will be more relaxed with Albania to play next, which gives them the opportunity to wrap up Group A before they play Switzerland. They will have to improve before the knockout stages however, as more potent attacks will punish their defensive frailties.
Members of their misfiring strike-force will need to sharpen up too, as from midfield Payet can not be expected to provide match-winning brilliance in every game to carry them.