“These lads will be crying into their matsoni this morning, having to face us again.” Some of the faces staring at me from the changing room benches wear looks of confusion.
“Matsoni, boss?” Asks Bechkoura.
“It’s Georgian yoghurt Bechkoura.” I snap. “Read a fucking book.” I turn back to the squad. “4-0 at home, 6-2 away. Those are our last 2 results against the Georgians. The 3 points in this match are non-negotiable, but I want you to aim higher than that. I want us to put down a proper marker here and show the rest of Europe that we are a team to be feared.” The lads’ looks of confusion turn to excitement, a true eagerness for the match ahead. “Kylian,” I turn to our star man. “Hat tricks in those last 2 games, let’s have another today shall we?”
“Yes boss”, he grins.
“Denmark beat these 2-0,” I shout, “Can we do better than that?” A cheer of approval fills the changing room. “Let them have it!”
We go against Georgia’s 4-4-2 unchanged after our dramatic draw against England. On reflection, I reckon we did enough to win that match and were unlucky to come away with just a point. We hit the woodwork three times and conceded from an uncharacteristic howler from Varane after all. Although Sidibé and Digne underperformed at full back as England attacked down the flanks and Lemar and Griezmann both had fairly poor games, this is still my full strength team and I’m hoping they’ll all kick start their tournaments with a big win and good performances to boot.
We go agonisingly close early on. Within 40 seconds, Kylian Mbappé has a ridiculous amount of space as he saunters into the Georgian half and uses it to full effect, powering towards the penalty area with the ball. He reaches the edge of the box virtually unchallenged and unleashes a shot towards the top right corner, but Levan Sopromadze dives excellently to tip the ball against the post.
Both sides go close shortly afterwards. First Lemar sends Sidibé running down the right wing with a searching ball, which the full back then drills towards Griezmann at the near post. Griezmann shoots first time, but it’s a disappointing effort and straight into Sopromadze’s grateful gloves. Down the other end, Arabidze turns Raphaël Varane inside out with some fancy footwork before having a pop at our goal, but again it’s straight at the keeper and Gauthier catches comfortably. In the 12th minute, Georgia receive an absolute hammer blow: Their main man Giorgi Arabidze, the only player to show any sort of promise so far, is stretchered off with a suspected foot injury. The defiantly positive Georgian crowd give their talisman a raucous round of applause as he’s replaced by Valeri Qazaishvili. If Georgia posed any threat up to this point, if they had any hope of snatching a result, it surely leaves the pitch with Arabidze.
And then it happens. Just 3 minutes after the substitution, Qazaishvili lays the ball off for Giorgi Kvilitaia, who uses his left foot to guide the ball onto his right, before unleashing a tremendous lob from 20 yards. As I watch with mouth agape, the ball floats through the air, beyond the helpless Leo Gauthier and flies perfectly into the top left corner of the France net. For the second time this week, numbness and an acute sense of dread course through my veins as I watch the team in white flock to the edge of the pitch, celebrating taking the lead against France. Against us. Against me. 0-1. I suppose we’re going to do this whole fucking tournament the hard way.
France lay siege to the Georgian goal for the next half hour, but do not manage to find an equaliser before the ref blows for half time. The closest we come is just before the half hour mark when Sidibé stabs a cross in to the back post, Griezmann rises well to nod the ball down and Bakayoko tries a volley from 8 yards, but Gogia throws himself in the way to deflect the effort just wide.
“Again!” I groan, pacing in front of the benches. “Again we’re behind at the fucking break! And to Georgia!” As I move my hands up towards my head to run them through my hair, Raphaël Varane reflexively jerks the hand holding his battered water bottle away from me. “Look, I do not want to scrape through this group. I do not want us having to come from behind every single match to grab a draw. Do any of you?” My question’s greeted by silence. “Sort it out.” I sigh wearily.
Like England, Georgia make the decision to change to a 4-1-4-1 at the break, with Levan Samkharadze replacing stalwart of the national side Jano as a defensive midfielder. The first chance of the half goes to us though when Mbappé passes the ball inside from the left for Antoine Griezmann, who takes a touch and slides a nice pass through for Captain Pogba. Pogba strides into the Georgia box and places the ball firmly into the bottom corner to put us level. I don’t even feel relief as the ball nestles in the back of the net because my first impression is that our skipper was offside, but the goal stands and we’re back in the game.
The one way traffic from the end of the first half continues throughout much of the second and by the 65th minute we’re finally ahead. As our opponents pack their own penalty box we’re forced down the wings and when Digne gets the ball during one such attack, he fizzes it across the face of goal from the left byline. Kylian Mbappé arrives and taps it in at the far post to give us the lead for the first time in the tournament.
A few minutes later Thomas Lemar and Adrien Rabiot are both brought off as I look to introduce some fresh legs into the team. They’ve both been solid if a little bit underwhelming today and I’m hoping that Coman and Sissako will take us up a level and allow us to add some gloss to a generally disappointing afternoon of football. It’s Georgia that threaten with about 10 minutes to go though and it’s Qazaishvili, the man who’s yet to start a game for our opponents but already has 2 assists to his name, that creates the chance with a superb ball over the top. Aymeric Laporte falls asleep and allows Kvilitaia to bare down on goal and shoot, but Gauthier raises a strong hand to bat the ball away.
In the 81st minute, Mbappé switches the ball to Sidibé, who in contrast to the last match has been one of our better performers today and a good outlet down the right. Sidibé rolls it down the line for Kingsley Coman, who squares it into the 6 yard box for Pogba. Our captain draws his right boot back and slams the ball into the roof of the net from close range. 3-1. After having to fight back again, we at last look like we’re going to take 3 points from this match. Georgia, despite 2 surprisingly resilient performances, look like they’re going home after all.
Mendy gets a run out for the last 10 minutes as Georgia roll the dice and try to find a way to save themselves from elimination. They put together a couple of good moves in the dying minutes, with Gauthier forced into flying saves to deny Qazaishvili after good passes from Samkharadze and Gogia, but we hold on. 3-1.
I won’t lie, I’m still pretty fucking gutted. Again, I have nothing against Georgia. The thrashings we handed them during qualification for this tournament were very therapeutic and helped me to get past that time they beat me as Liechtenstein boss. But “We hold on” shouldn’t be a phrase I have to use today. We’ve underperformed.
And I know, I know. At the end of the day, we’ve picked up the 3 points I wanted and with England beating Denmark, we’re 2nd on goal difference and will qualify from the Group Stage with a point from our last match. That’s good and it could be much worse. I get that. But still… It feels like we’re wasting our potential as a top team. I want to see free-scoring beautiful football. That’s what I’ve always wanted from this France team and at the minute it’s all very… I don’t know… Precarious.
It’s like I’ve trained a dog to talk and invited everyone in the neighbourhood round to see my amazing talking dog, but when the moment’s finally come and I’ve told him to talk, as the crowd of onlookers watch and murmur excitedly, the amazing talking dog’s taken a massive shit right in the middle of the kitchen floor. It’s still impressive afterwards when he says “I’m sorry I took a shit in the middle of the kitchen floor”, but nobody’s really paying attention anymore because all anyone can smell is amazing talking dogshit.