Griezmann's double caps France's best half of Euro 2016 so far
LYON, France -- After making a strong statement with his second-half performance in the 2-1 win over the Republic of Ireland, France's match-winner Antoine Griezmann revealed that strong words were spoken just before that.
"We didn't play well in the first half," he said. "We said things in the changing room at half-time. Our coach said things. But we were playing for France so we gave everything."
It might mean that everything has changed for the hosts and especially their star forward. Griezmann made this game his own with two goals in four minutes, and fans of the host nation will hope that the way they came about might be key to France making the trophy their own.
The contrast between a poor first half and rousing second was so pronounced that it suggested Didier Deschamps might have found a formation to finally get the best out of his team of individuals. The problem is that this has been said before and if the pattern continues, there's a likelihood France will be caught as the level of opposition increases.
Against Ireland, there is no doubt that the hosts were rattled and the language used by the players after the game said it all. As N'Golo Kante told ESPN FC in the mixed zone, France were genuinely "worried" that they could be going out against a side they should be beating comfortably. Dmitri Payet called it the "worst scenario," while Deschamps said Ireland made them "uncomfortable".
For the entirety of the first half, Martin O'Neill's side barely gave France any kind of usable space. They were on top of the host nation in every move and just did their basic jobs so much better. There was so much more intensity about Ireland.
The opening goal summed that up: The first time a French player touched the ball in was when Hugo Lloris picked the ball out of the net after Robbie Brady's second-minute penalty. Ireland kept the ball from kickoff, with the purpose of their play forcing Paul Pogba into a clumsy challenge on Shane Long.
France continued to make mistakes as Ireland closed down relentlessly. Deschamps' defence looked shaky, the midfield wasn't working and the forwards were making poor decisions. The anxiety in the team was shown as early as the 10th minute when Payet -- of all people -- was unable to cleanly control a bobbling ball in the box.
In the buildup to the game, Lloris had mentioned that Ireland would give France a "battle" but France didn't look up for the fight. When they did try and match the challenges of Seamus Coleman or Jeff Hendrick, Kante got booked.
That rules the midfielder out of the quarterfinal -- potentially against England in Paris next Sunday -- but, in truth, it may have kept France in the tournament because it forced Deschamps into a decision. He had to bring on a more attacking player, and so he introduced Kingsley Coman in place of Kante.
With Deschamps favourite Blaise Matuidi now afforded more space, the change immediately made France sleeker; the team just fitted together so much better and players looked more settled in familiar positions.
Nobody better emphasised this than Griezmann, who suddenly looked so impressive through the middle. Granted, it greatly helped that a limited Irish side had pushed themselves to the limits of their energy levels, especially in moments such as Shane Duffy's brilliant block on a Griezmann shot just before half-time.
With more space in which to work and Irish tackles more forgiving, a side of France's quality were always going to break through. And so it was on 58 minutes, when Bacary Sagna curled a brilliant cross from the right and Griezmann headed past Darren Randolph with barely a challenge troubling him.
The score was level but, really, the game was over from that point as Ireland had run out of energy. Three minutes later, the simplest ball forward allowed Olivier Giroud to knock down a header for Griezmann, who excellently finished past Randolph. Ireland had been blown away and their implosion was complete when Duffy was sent off after fouling on the edge of the penalty area.
It meant that after so much worry, this was not France's last match. Their next game, however, needs to be the first where they finally play convincingly throughout. Defender Adil Rami, who will also be suspended, admitted that there had been common issues.
"We've been playing this way since the beginning of the Euros, starting games badly," he said.
Deschamps might have found his best formation; France need to dispense with the cautious idea of playing two defensive midfielders in order to facilitate their best form. An admirable and proud Ireland enlivened this game with the way they took it to France -- and they may well have also enlivened the hosts.
Miguel Delaney covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Twitter: @MiguelDelaney.