“Did they not have any of that pulled pork?” Asks Bechkoura, giving the impression that he has no interest whatsoever in the answer.
“To beat the Spanish…” I ponder out loud, through a mouthful of food, “One must think like the Spanish. One must eat, drink and breathe as the Spanish do.” I spoon another mouthful of rice into my mouth.
“Right. So paella and a beer.”
“Una cerveza.” I correct him.
“Paella and… Una cerveza. This is your plan to reach the Quarters, is it?”
“It’s San Miguel.” I clarify, spraying rice over the table. “And I’ll thank you not to question my methods, Bechkoura. Have I mentioned in the last few days that-“
“Yes.” Bechkoura snarls, through gritted teeth. “You have mentioned your Pro License. Many more times than was necessary, actually.”
“As the only pro in the room that holds a Pro License,” I purr, spraying yet more rice across the room, “I will decide what is an appropriate number of times to mention my current status as Pro License holder, thank you. So por favor… Fuck off.”
Bechkoura glares. Then sighs. Then leaves.
Don Collins miraculously made quite an interesting point in his roundup the other day, I’m not sure if you caught it. As much flack as I’m now receiving on a daily basis for France’s performances, Spain haven’t been that great themselves in Euro 24. They lost against Serbia, which… Fine, they played a second string, but they just scraped past Scotland! Scotland! I’d say that we’ve given a far better showing than them so far, so my plan remains the same as always: Project Renaissance is our system, scoring more than Spain is our goal. Now with a Pro License holder at the helm, what could possibly go wrong?
3 of the players that were rested against Denmark come back into the side today: Adrien Rabiot replaces Corentin Tolisso in midfield, Paul Pogba replaces Thomas Lemar, who I must admit I’ve been disappointed in during the group stage and Antoine Griezmann replaces Neal Maupay up top. I considered giving Moussa Dembélé his first start of the tournament but I think he’ll be most useful as an if-needed impact sub again. Aymeric Laporte stays on the bench though as I was fairly pleased with Samuel Umtiti and want to give him another game to see if he keeps impressing.
“Watch Morata like a fucking hawk.” I stress to Umtiti before we head out for kick off. “He’s played 1 match, scored 2 goals and he’ll be chomping at the bit to show Marcelino he should’ve played more.” Umtiti nods stoically. “Like a fucking hawk.” I repeat, for effect.
“Caw.” Grins the centre back.
Although I’ve definitely learned over the last few games that the first 10 minutes of European Championship football matches can be deceiving, I have to say I’m buoyed by our start. Our first good chance comes in the 9th minute when we work the ball marvellously through the middle of the park and Griezmann receives it on the edge of the Spanish area, drawing a centre back away to make room for Paul Pogba before laying the ball off for him in space. Pogba stabs a shot goalwards but it’s straight down the throat of De Gea, who catches it comfortably.
Another chance comes our way 2 minutes later and again, it’s a good move through the centre that creates it. This time, Pogba looks up 30 yards from goal and sprays the ball out to Digne on the left wing. The left back’s cross is deflected and bounces back to Rabiot, who shoots low and hard from the edge of the area and forces a good save from De Gea down to his right.
2 minutes after that, we’re really piling the pressure on, penning Spain back into their half as we dominante. Mbappé picks up the ball in the left channel, spots Digne once again bombing past Bellerin releases him with a good pass along the floor. Digne controls the ball and turns inside, causing the pursuing Bellerin to run past him and then curls a right footed cross in towards the far post. Griezmann races Toni lato to the ball… Griezmann gets there first… GRIEZMANN!
My fist hammers the air as pandemonium takes over the 80,000 strong crowd at the San Siro. I feel like I could punch a whole straight through the ozone layer, melting all the ice in the world single handedly. This is what I wanted. This is what France can do. It’s a beautiful finish by Griezmann, who beat PSG’s Lato for pace and then guided a header back across goal, perfectly under De Gea into the far bottom corner of the net. But it’s our overall play that I’m most happy with. I’d rate our performance in the first 13 minutes as 11/10. We’ve arrived. Fucking finally.
Inevitably, we’re nearly pegged back within 10 minutes when Villalibre plays a clever pass beyond Umtiti, allowing Morata to run through on goal and hammer a shot against the foot of the post. I’ll ‘Caw’ you, sunshine. “LIKE A FUCKING HAWK!” I scream, prompting an apologetic raised hand from Umtiti and a very peculiar look from my opposite number Marcelino.
10 minutes from the break, we win a corner. Kylian Mbappé runs over, swings a deep cross towards the far post and Bakayoko rises above Jorge Meré to nod it down. Suddenly Coman’s there in acres of space! Criminally unmarked 6 yards out! KINGSLEY COMAN – POKES IT HOME! A wide smile creeps across my face as Coman sprints past some euphoric French fans. 2-0. I see De Gea arguing with Meré. I see Marcelino arguing with his backroom staff. We’ve bloody got them. If we can take a 2 goal lead in at half time, we’ve bloody got them.
As the clock ticks over into injury time, Alvaro Morata receives the ball and curls a great pass over the top of our defence. Villalibre sprints after it, as does Varane, but the Spanish striker gets there first. He shakes off Varane, bares down on goal and drills a low shot past Gauthier and into the net. Of course he does.
I said after the Georgia game that France up to that point had felt, for lack of a better work, precarious. No situation has fitted that word more perfectly than the atmosphere in the dressing room when we head in for half time at 2-1. I feel like I’m walking on brilliant egg shells. The good feeling that we cultivated for precisely 45 minutes seems to have drained away in the couple more that were added on. I’ve never fully bought into the old saying that “2-0 is the most dangerous scoreline” as I think it’s very situational. Yes, in some cases 2-0 can lead to players taking their eye off the ball, or growing overly confident and becoming complacent, but I think in the majority of cases 2-0 just reflects that one side has had a comfortably better game than the other and if anything, the cushion just compounds the trailing side’s sense of hopelessness, making a comeback even less likely. This however seems to be one of those situations where 2-0 really was dangerous. We looked good. No, we looked brilliant. After 3 games of mediocrity we looked like we’d finally hit our stride and I think it was almost that sense of relief and the fact that we were so close to being able to regroup at the break that cost us our hard earned momentum. We did take our eyes off the ball and now in the opposite changing room, Marcelino will be full of praise and encouragement. He’ll be saying “You’ve got them scared”. He’ll be saying “Just keep going” and “You can do this”.
In the end I keep my team talk to 3 words: “Keep playing beautifully.” I reckon if they keep doing that, if they put the result out of their minds and keep playing the way they have been, the result will surely follow.
8 minutes after the restart, my brilliant French bastards oblige. An excellent one-touch move comprised of 7 passes and 8 touches of the ball ends up with Mbappé 25 yards out. One again he slides the ball through to Lucas Digne, who’s bombing into the left hand side of the box and then tees it up for Antoine Griezmann, who takes a touch and sweeps his shot beyond De Gea’s fingertips for 3-1.
There’s commotion on the Spanish bench as Marcelino goes into panic mode. Pablo Fornais and Germán Ramos are replaced by Sergi Roberto and Álex Grimaldo, then Sergi Samper replaces Abraham Perez just minutes later. I can’t help smirking. The scarers have once again become the scarees. Just seconds after Samper’s introduction, we get another chance too when Adrien Rabiot pokes a through ball into the path of Kingsley Coman. Spain’s defence is in shambles as Coman darts through towards the 6 yard box – And slots the ball under De Gea. 4-1. It’s 4-1 and it’s so fucking beautiful!
I suddenly realise that while Spain have used up all 3 substitutes, I’m yet to make any myself. I look down the bench and tell Fekir and Tolisso to warm up. Mbappé and Bakayoko soon make way as both could do with a rest, although for some reason I’m still reluctant to admit that we’ve got the win tied up. Fekir takes the lone striker role while Griezmann will join Coman on wing rotation duty. 10 minutes later, the score remains 4-1 and I opt to rest Sidibé too, bringing on Upamecano and shifting Tolisso over to right back, while Upa replaces him in midfield.
And then, with 17 minutes of the match to play, it happens: Surely the headline moment in the coming days and weeks and the moment that the people of France will talk about fondly years and decades from now when recounting today’s events. Griezmann swings a corner in and De Gea rises to pluck it out of the air. As the players disperse, anticipating a long kick upfield, the goalie drops the ball at his feet – And is promptly robbed by Paul Pogba, who places it into his Manchester United teammate’s empty net. I laugh. I try not to, but between a frustrating Group Stage, the murmurs of my sacking that’ve been steadily building in volume throughout the fans and media and my combined senses of sheer relief and disbelief, I can’t help it. I laugh my arse off as Paul Pogba sprints away to celebrate shamelessly with his compatriots.
A few minutes later we concede a second goal, but it does nothing to alter my mood even though it’s a bit of a defensive cock up on our part: We win a free kick just inside our own half and Varane takes it quickly – Too quickly, blasting the ball against Adrien Rabiot’s thigh and causing it to bounce straight back into the path of Villalibre. The striker shrugs off Varane again and runs in on goal before placing the ball into the top right corner of Gauthier’s net from 12 yards.
As the game edges towards it’s conclusion, we keep battering on the door looking for another goal. Kingsley Coman’s desperate to complete his hat trick and has 2 shots in quick succession blocked by team mates Fekir and Umtiti following a corner, but then within a minute of those chances a fine pass from Paul Pogba finds Nabil Fekir just inside the box and the Real Madrid man lashes the ball past De Gea on the turn.
Stick a fork in Spain, lads. They are decisively and irreparably done. If this had been a boxing match, the referee would’ve called it half an hour ago, but it wasn’t. It was a football match lasting 90 glorious minutes and I enjoyed every second. I have never felt more vindicated as I watch the Tricolores once again wave proudly all around me. We were electric. We were magnificent.
The Renaissance is finally in full swing and I dare anyone to try and stop it.