Another month, another European heartbreak for Antoine Griezmann. Six weeks after he suffered the pain of losing the Champions League final to Real Madrid in Milan, Griezmann had to endure the same unfortunate result in Paris last Sunday. His star-studded French side, who were at times unimpressive throughout the tournament, fell to the Cristiano Ronaldo-less Portugal in extra time in the European Championship final. An unlikely goal by an unlikely source in Eder was enough to break French hearts as Griezmann was left picking up his second runners-up medal of the season.
For France, the competition overall can be viewed as a failure. They managed to knock out the World Champions in Germany, as well as finish on top of their group but anything other than victory on home soil was going to leave a bitter taste in the mouths of their fans. Blessed with talent such as Paul Pogba, Anthony Martial, Dimitri Payet, Laurent Koscielny, Hugo Lloris and, of course, Griezmann, the expectations were understandably high.
However, like every major tournament since the Euros were last played in France back in 2000, the team failed to pick up the grand prize at the end. Many players disappointed on the grandest stage for France, and fingers have been pointed at them. One player that shouldn’t feel the need to apologise for their performance is Griezmann.
Finishing as the competition's top scorer with six goals, joining his fellow Frenchman Michel Platini as the only players to score more than five goals in a single event, and collecting the Best Player of the Tournament award is a fine feat for the 25-year-old. In the build-up to the month-long competition, most of the talk was centred around Pogba, and how this was the perfect opportunity for him to prove his doubters wrong by leading his home nation to victory.
The discussion regarding Pogba and his importance to the French team resembled how Neymar was viewed ahead of the World Cup in Brazil two years ago. Back then, pressure was placed on the Barcelona forward to deliver a stunning performance and contribute to his country’s success.
Despite their embarrassing exit at the hands of Germany in the semi-finals, Neymar had for the most part, lived up to the expectations, scoring 3 goals before an injury in the quarter-finals ruled him out for the rest of the tournament. France did indeed have their own superstar player who was keen to etch his name in the history books for leading his country to glory on home turf.
It wasn’t Pogba, as many predicted beforehand. Keen to show he belongs in the category of players like Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Neymar, Atletico’ very own Griezmann produced inspirational performances to ensure his country’s passage to the final.
Despite being dropped for France’s match with Albania, after a sub-par performance in the opening 2-1 victory over Romania, Griezmann was able to quickly redeem himself by heading in an injury-time winner before Payet doubled the French lead soon after. It was only an example of how the attacker enjoys the big moments, as a draw would have left France in a precarious position in terms of finishing in first place.
Griezmann gladly stepped up and offered a preview of what was about to come for the rest of the tournament. As France found themselves down 1-0 to the underdog side in the Republic of Ireland in the last 16, the country once again needed a hero to pull them through to the quarter-finals. France were looking flat and uninspired until a Griezmann header in the 57th minute, followed by a cool finish with his left foot four minutes later turned the game on its head.
The final highlight of the game also seen Griezmann involved, as he was hacked down by Ireland’s last defender Shane Duffy which resulted in the centre-back being shown a red card. With his country staring elimination in its face, Griezmann seized on his opportunity to become the nation’s hero.
A comfortable 5-2 victory over Iceland in the quarter-finals also contained a Griezmann goal, as well as two assists for a player that was fast involving himself in the discussion for being the tournament’s best performer. Coming up against Manuel Neuer and Germany in the semi-finals was a daunting task, but Griezmann had already stuck one past the goalkeeper this season.
His finish in the Champions League semi-final second leg tie at the Allianz ensured Atleti would return to the final for a second time in three years. Once again France were struggling, this time in trying to cope with Germany’s passing and control of the game. A moment of fortune was needed, and eventually granted, when Bastian Schweinsteiger handled the ball in the area and a penalty was awarded for the hosts. Though his penalty miss in the final vs Real surely still lingers in his mind, Griezmann stepped up confidently and slotted home the spot kick to award France an unlikely half-time lead. As expected the second-half mostly consisted of Germany parking the ball in France’s half, looking for the all-important equaliser but when Pogba’s trickery caused confusion, Griezmann was once again on hand to take advantage of a golden opportunity.
His toe-poke past Neuer gifted France a 2-0 lead and it was enough to grant them their place in the final. In what was arguably the biggest game of his international career at the time, Atleti’s star striker refused to buckle under the pressure of the expectant eyes of a demanding nation. He increased his tally to 6 goals for the tournament, laying to rest any doubt over his belonging in the discussion of the best player around, as well as firmly establishing himself as the stand out player of the competition.
The immediate aftermath of the final won’t bring about much elation for Griezmann, despite his outstanding performances. Losing in another European final won’t be easy to accept for such a talented and determined individual but if his form this past month is anything to go by, it will motivate him even more for next year. That can only be a positive for Atletico.