After last week’s 14-0 drubbing of Gibraltar, Les Bleus faced a somewhat more demanding challenge as they travelled to Athens to round off their qualifying campaign.
The hosts were able to play out from the back relatively comfortably despite France’s high press, and posed a consistent attacking threat – Fotis Ioannidis’ rugged battle with William Saliba at the centre of it all. The midfield trio of Antoine Griezmann, Youssouf Fofana and Adrien Rabiot
For most of the first half, virtually every one of France’s chances were crafted by the omnipresent Griezmann. It was another veteran who would eventually set up the opener, though, as Youssouf Fofana found Olivier Giroud, before the Milan forward played Randal Kolo Muani through with a trademark first-time layoff. The Paris Saint-Germain man would chest the ball down, before emphatically finding the roof of the net from a tight angle. Nearly a year on from opening his account against Morocco in the World Cup semi-final, Kolo Muani finally had his second goal for France.
The constant pressure from the Greek forward line would pay off in the second half, as Lucas Hernandez saw a clearance charged down, and the hosts flooded forward. After several shots from range were blocked and sent back to the attackers, it was the captain Anastasios Bakasetas who would eventually finish off the move with a devastating volley into the bottom corner.
Les Bleus would concede again within minutes, as Giannoulis breezed past Jules Koundé down the left with a nutmeg before squaring it for Ioannidis to put the hosts in front with a close-range finish. Didier Deschamps had seen enough – with half an hour to go, Kylian Mbappé was introduced to the game, along with Jonathan Clauss and Kingsley Coman.
With the Greeks looking to sit back and hold their lead, the final half hour looked set to be a grind for France to find an equaliser – until Youssouf Fofana unleashed another shot from range, this time dipping just in time to find the net. The final exchanges would see a more incisive France side come to the fore, as the substitutes made the most of the home defence’s weariness. Kingsley Coman would come closest to clinching the win, with an cross that deflected onto one post, and looked to have crossed the line on its way towards the other upright. Mbappé would end a quiet cameo with a flourish, dancing his way past two defenders before unleashing a shot that was tipped onto the bar by Odysseas Vlachodimos.
After a night of adversity in Athens, France miss out on a full house of qualifying victories. The bigger picture, though, can only be seen as encouraging. After the devastating blow of the World Cup final defeat, the new-look, rejuvenated France have responded in emphatic fashion, turning in consistently high-quality performances against every calibre of opponent. The prospects for next summer are looking bright.
France player ratings
Brice Samba, 5 – The Lens shot-stopper was mostly imposing around his box and could do little about the two Greek goals.
Jules Koundé, 4 – Any assessment of his performances for France should take into account that he isn’t playing in his preferred position. The Barcelona man offered little going forward and was beaten far too easily by Giannoulis on Greece’s second goal.
William Saliba, 6 – Did well to recover from his early stumble under pressure. The Arsenal man was locked in a fierce battle with Ioannidis for the rest of the game, and was able to win most of his duels against the Panathinaikos forward.
Lucas Hernandez, 5
Théo Hernandez, 6
Adrien Rabiot, 7
Youssouf Fofana, 7 – Two encouraging performances from the Monaco man during this international break, both capped off with goals in both games.
Ousmane Dembélé, 4 – A handful of line-breaking dribbles but contributed little else, looking somewhat isolated on the wing for most of the hour he was on the pitch. Replaced by Kingsley Coman, who almost created the winning goal with a cross that was deflected onto both posts.
Antoine Griezmann, 7 – The vice-captain – who wore the armband in Mbappé’s absence – was at his all-action best in the first half, breaking up attacks while orchestrating what looked to be a convincing victory in the midfield battle. Like his midfield partners, he faded away slightly in the midst of the quick-fire Greek double on the hour mark, but was still among France’s standout performers.
Randal Kolo Muani, 6 – Little involvement but a well-taken goal to open the scoring, and another headed chance before his exit. Replaced by Kylian Mbappé.
Olivier Giroud, 6