An extraordinary football day ended in the most extraordinary way, with the departure of the favorite of Euro 2020 and current world champion, France, in a penalty shoot-out, at the hands of Switzerland. Kylian Mbappé, in charge of taking the fifth penalty to extend the penalty shoot-out after a 3-3 draw in regulation time and overtime, saw his effort stopped by Yann Sommer, with the Swiss goalkeeper diving to his right to kick the ball and a moment that instantly became iconic. But those are simple statements that do nothing to capture a game of incredible twists and drama. France, the most solid and pragmatic team, led 3-1 with nine minutes left in regulation, and yet it is Switzerland that advances to the quarter-finals to face Spain, whose 5-3 victory in the Extra time over Croatia turned out to be only the second most ridiculous game of the day.
Didier Deschamps’ France has never been easy to train. His defining quality has been his ability to win without convincing. He specializes in playing within himself, polishing games, until he comes under pressure and suddenly comes alive to do enough. It frustrates neutrals by seemingly always offering something more than it delivers. And on Monday, he paid the price. It seemed like he had done enough and then stopped, but it turned out he hadn’t. Granit Xhaka and Steven Zuber were brilliant and Haris Seferović and Mario Gavranović had one goal left each. What looked like another slightly unsatisfactory victory for France turned out to be perhaps the best night in Swiss football history.
But even by French standards, this was extraordinary, a game that made very little sense, that was lost, won, and discarded again. For 55 minutes, France was terrible. The world champion was facing the exit. And then, in the space of just over four minutes, Hugo Lloris saved a penalty and Karim Benzema, whose recall of France’s squad was so controversial, scored twice.
The first was the result of a brilliantly imaginative touch from himself, the second involved a backward heel movement from Mbappé. The third, added 15 minutes later by Paul Pogba, could have been the best of all. On the featured reels, this France looks sensational; there is the possibility that this side is of transcendent appeal. In reality, despite all his success, he always feels like he could be even better than he already is. It is a team that aspires to be boring, which is often boring, and yet is still caught up in amazing games.
With both left backs injured, Deschamps opted for a back three, with Clement Lenglet between Raphaël Varane and Presnel Kimpembe. Perhaps the idea was that the full-backs would offer the range of attack that France often lacked in the group stage. They do not. France did not rediscover the balance of the World Cup in this tournament, perhaps an indication of the key role that Blaise Matuidi, in his left-sided role, played in Russia three summers ago.
With Antoine Griezmann falling deep into a forward two from Mbappé and Benzema, France still tended to direct attacks down the middle, in a congested area. Switzerland, by contrast, was broad and repeatedly threatened to get behind the French full-backs. That was the source of the first goal, with Zuber hanging a cross for Seferović to overtake Lenglet and bury a header on Lloris, a tournament-record fourth assist for the Eintracht Frankfurt full-back.
Every cross caused problems. The heart of France’s defense did not seem at all comfortable. Benjamin Pavard looks like a central defender even in a more orthodox fullback spot and much higher up the field. Adrien Rabiot, for his part, never seemed comfortable either positionally or with the ball.
Switzerland, in the first half, looked strangely comfortable. Pogba, not for the first time, was insecure in a central midfielder pair. There was a lack of rhythm, a lack of energy, no one pressing the ball. Lenglet retired at halftime and Kingsley Coman was introduced, with the system shifting to something of a 4-3-3, with Rabiot replacing on the left back.
But France still seemed unstable. Only a vital touch from Varane prevented Xherdan Shaqiri from a tap-in, and then, after a break on the other flank, an awkward challenge from Pavard over Zuber gave Switzerland a penalty in the 55th minute. Veteran Ricardo Rodríguez, however, she lacked conviction and Lloris saved her.
That was the disappointment France needed, or so it seemed. Two minutes later, Benzema, reaching behind him and somehow fabricating a forward move, mustered a move from Mbappé and finished off Sommer. Two minutes later, he had his second and fourth of the tournament, heading off the back post after a brace between Griezmann and Mbappé. Suddenly, Pogba, back in a three-man unit, began to dictate the game again, adding an impressive third with 15 minutes to go, doubling a shot to the top corner from nearly 30 yards, his first goal for his country since the 2018 World Cup. final.
All logic said it should have been, but this was not a day that logic played a big role. Seferović hit a header in the 81st minute from a Kevin Mbabu cross to recall France’s defensive fragility. Gavranović had ruled out a possible draw for offside, and still was not finished. In the last minute, Pogba lost possession, Shaqiri fed Gavranović and the substitute found the bottom corner.
France, who came close to winning at the death of the regulation with a sensational volley from Coman, recovered in extra time. Pogba played a series of jaw-dropping passes, one of which caused a mistake that will haunt Mbappé as he let the ball run to his left foot and deflected it when a shot with his right would have seemed more natural. This time, at last, France couldn’t just conjure up a goal when they needed it.
Mbappé seemed like a player under pressure. The French penalty shooters who preceded him waited, took their time and scored. He sped up his kick, looking fooled by Sommer’s point and feint. Switzerland, whose five kickers were successful, had never before won a penalty shootout in a major tournament. You will never forget your first one. France, meanwhile, is left to mull over the immediate future and wonder what it left behind, aside from a Euro 2020 support that has now been thrown wide open following the removal of its impending giant.
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Eddie is an Australian news reporter with over 9 years in the industry and has published on Forbes and tech crunch.