France strike late to beat Albania and go through
By Mitch Phillips
MARSEILLE, France (Reuters) - A 90th-minute header by substitute striker Antoine Griezmann and a stoppage-time special by Dimitri Payet secured France a heartstopping 2-0 win over Albania on Wednesday that sent the hosts through as the first team into the last 16 of Euro 2016.
France had struggled to make any impression on a determined Albanian defence and as the clock ticked into the last minute neither team had managed a shot on target -- though both hit a post.
They had needed an 89th-minute Payet goal to beat Romania in their first game and it was even later when centre back Adil Rami swung in a hopeful cross that Griezmann guided expertly home.
The 67,000 Stade Velodrome crowd -- minus 20,000 stunned Albanians -- erupted in a wave of noise, which was repeated minutes later when Payet cut inside to smash in the second.
With six points France are guaranteed to finish in the top two of Group A, with Switzerland, on four points after drawing with Romania earlier, favourites to join them.
France had lost to and drawn with Albania in the last two friendly meetings so they knew they would not be handed the game on a plate by a team desperate to make an impact in their first major tournament, after they were beaten by Switzerland in their opening game having suffered an early red card.
France coach Didier Deschamps handed starts to Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial, but if the plan was for their speed and mobility to stretch the Albanians out wide it was a failure.
France instead played a tense, risk-free 45-minutes with neither wide man making in-roads, one smart Coman turn apart, and managed only two wayward Olivier Giroud headers
Deschamps took action at halftime, introducing Paul Pogba for Martial and within a minute Coman nudged a header inches wide.
It was Albania who were closest to a breakthrough 10 minutes later when Ledian Memushaj pressured Bacary Sagna into bundling the ball against his own post with Hugo Lloris beaten.
Pogba sent a half-volley over the bar and Giroud, unmarked, sent another header wide and then thumped another against a post from a juicy Patrice Evra cross as France gradually turned the screw.
Griezmann then joined the fray, replacing Coman, as did former Olympique de Marseille forward Andre-Pierre Gignac in place of Giroud -- to a massive roar.
However, with Albania taking every opportunity to slow the game -- half the team taking it in turns to go down with cramp -- France struggled to get up any head of steam.
It was looking as if they would have to settle for a point until Griezmann struck, with Payet adding the icing.
(Editing by: Toby Davis)