At the end, he sank to his knees, overcome by the magnitude of the moment. Antoine Griezmann was moved. Les Bleus had defeated Belgium 1-0, a controlled victory, one that was scarcely exhilarating. The French struck the right balance between defence and attack and for much of the game frustrated Belgium, who probed at times, but often exerted mere ‘sterile’ pressure. It mattered little to the French. They were not interested in philosophical considerations. After the final whistle, the French players stormed the field. Even Didier Deschamps danced. Lucas Hernandez hugged Griezmann, who teared up.
“It was the tension and pressure that dropped of my shoulders,” explained a relaxed Griezmann in the mixed zone. “It was my objective to play the World Cup final from the start of this season. We worked as a team. Defensively, we were very solid. We scored and then shut shop. We have to win on Sunday.”
In the star cast of Premier League players and some of his elite contemporary peers, Griezmann almost played a peripheral role. Kevin De Bruyne, Romelu Lukaku and Eden Hazard, all wizards in their own way, had coaxed the ball to do their bidding, but ultimately they failed to impose their swashbuckling version of the game. The game against Brazil almost seemed a distant memory. Hazard flickered, De Bruyne pushed and passed and Lukaku drifted in the box, but to little avail.
Kylian Mbappe overshadowed the Belgium trident. The new French princeling Mbappe has been the breakout star of this World Cup and even in a game that promised so much and yet delivered so little, Mbappe stared again, tormenting the Belgian defence with his pace and ridiculing his opponents with a second-half back heel to Oliver Giroud that was both outrageous and gorgeous.
The French number nine was also in the limelight. Giroud’s role was mostly baffling: the ideal target man with tenacity, but a striker without a nous for goal at this tournament. Giroud hasn’t had an attempt on target during this World Cup yet. So where did that leave Griezmann?
With the rise of Mbappe, Griezmann is no longer the fulcrum of the French attack. His versatility and industriousness have masked his disappointing World Cup, scoring three goals, but never attaining peak form. In many ways, Griezmann has remained crucial to the French attacking set-up. At the last European Championship, poster boy Griezmann struggled with fitness and was rested against Albania, but as France struggled, the Atletico striker came on after the interval and broke the deadlock with a fine header in the 90th minute. In the semi-final, Griezmann also scored two decisive goals against Germany. Pepe, however, silenced Griezmann in the final.
But the striker has already displayed some fine traits in Russia: running in between the lines, playing on the front foot and applying his blistering pace. That ‘Grizou DNA’ has resurfaced during this World Cup, allowing him to dictate France’s tempo. He masters the rhythm of the game, and in the shadows of Mbappe and even Giroud, influences the game profoundly.
With his experience, Griezmand knows when to keep the ball and when to accelerate. Against Belgium, he kept possession as the 90 minutes wound down. His ambition differs from Mbappe, who wants to score, no matter what. Griezmann plays for the collective, setting aside his personal ambitions. He calmed Lucas Hernandez down when the full-back was attacking full-throttle against Argentina with France in a 4-2 lead.
At this World Cup, Griezmann is not in the entertainment business. His status unquestionable, he has turned his focus to winning. As such, he is a disciple of Didier Deschamps, France’s coach and 1998 World Cup winner, who embodies the cult of winning. The result always prevails over the style and the substance. Les Bleus are solid, but restrained. They do not enthrall, they do not excite. Griezmann’s World Cup has been just that: very functional, with crucial contributions at various times. In the quarter-finals he toppled Uruguay single-handedly.
“There are 90 minutes to bring the Cup home to France,” said Griezmann. “We hope to go all the way. I know that I am an important player. During the group stage I wasn’t at my best level and when the knockouts I discovered my level again. We won’t change anything, we will do everything the same way. I am convinced we will play a great final.”
France have shown plenty of characteristics that are a reminder of Les Bleus in 1998: durability, combativeness and a winning mentality. At the time, France went on to win the World Cup with a commanding 3-0 victory against Brazil in the final. That team’s hallmark was functionality. Griezmann and France stand accused of too much practicality as well, but they won’t mind as long as they prevail on Sunday.
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Updated Date: Jul 11, 2018 10:35:27 IST