Germany absolutely dominated the first half of their Euro 2016 semifinal match, but a penalty at the end of the half completely changed the face of the game. France took the lead against the run of play and didn't look back, adding another goal in the second half en route to a 2-0 win over the defending World Cup champions and setting themselves up for a chance to win Euro 2016 on home soil.
The match started off with France on the front foot, flying forward and wailing away at an unsettled-looking Germany side that didn't start the match well at all. That momentum didn't last long, though, and once Germany found their footing and started getting forward themselves, things started looking awfully one-sided.
Germany absolutely throttled France for the vast majority of the first half, at one point holding a whopping 70% possession and getting forward at will. Only an absolutely astounding performance from France's central defenders and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris kept Germany from scoring -- and that would prove crucial by the end of the first half.
In the last few minutes of the half, France started getting something working on the counter again at long last, leading to a stoppage time corner kick. That corner turned to gold when Bastian Schweinsteiger left his arms up while challenging for an aerial ball and wound up having the ball strike his right hand. There was certainly no intention to handle the ball from Schweinsteiger, but with his arm up like that referee Nicola Rizzoli had no choice but to award the penalty. Antoine Griezmann put the spot kick away with ease, and France had the lead completely against the run of play at the end of the first half.
That lead inspired France to much better play right from the outset of the second half, running all over the field with confidence and quality while Germany scuffled around looking for answers. Those answers didn't come, and as Germany desperately sought an equalizer and were continually stuffed, France were in turn slowly looking more and more dangerous in the final third.
An injury to Jérôme Boateng left Germany further shaken, and their attempts to adapt both to that and their continued chase for an equalizer left them exposed at the back -- and France were there to exploit their woes. A brilliant ball in from Paul Pogba forced Manuel Neuer to make a desperate lunge at the ball to keep it from getting to Olivier Giroud, but the close presence of the French striker kept Neuer from catching the ball or even getting a clean punch on it. That let the ball drop to a rapidly closing Griezmann, and he made no mistake in putting the ball away to extend France's lead to 2-0.
France didn't stop racing forward after extending their lead, but with Germany continuing to struggle to do much of anything effective in attack, the match was effectively over with that second goal. Even with a pair of very attacking substitutions, Germany couldn't unlock France's defense before the final whistle, and the defending World Cup champions couldn't find a way to make their second straight major competition final.
It was a huge win for France, beating perhaps the only team in Euro 2016 who were clearly and obviously more talented than they are. Now they'll be playing in the final against Portugal on home soil, with the crowd behind them and a magical ending at hand. Can they finish the job? We'll find out this weekend, but in the meantime there's plenty of reason for French fans and players alike to celebrate and dream of triumph.
France: Hugo Lloris; Bacary Sagna, Laurent Koscielny, Samuel Umtiti, Patrice Evra; Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi; Dimitri Payet (N'Golo Kanté 71'), Antoine Griezmann, Moussa Sissoko; Oliver Giroud (André-Pierre Gignac 78')
Goals: Griezmann (pen. 45'+2, 72')
Germany: Manuel Neuer; Joshua Kimmich, Benedikt Höwedes, Jérôme Boateng (Shkodran Mustafi 61'), Jonas Hector; Bastian Schweinsteiger (Leroy Sane 79'), Emre Can (Mario Götze 67'), Toni Kroos; Julian Draxler, Thomas Müller, Mesut Özil
Three things we learned
Germany's slow start led to utter domination...
For the first 10 minutes or so of the match, Germany looked a step slow and a bit shaky. They were reacting to France's actions rather than playing their normal proactive style, and fans were nervous that perhaps Jogi Löw had gone too far in his adjustments to the starting lineup.
Then Germany finished assessing France's approach to the match, and took over the game.
It was like a switch had been flipped, and in a very real way that's what happened. Germany's conservative and slow start turned out to be taking a few minutes to see what France were doing, and figuring out the weaknesses of their approach. Once they were done with that process, they started playing for keeps, completely disrupting France's midfield, putting immense pressure on their back line, dominating possession and limiting France's attack to a handful of mostly ineffectual counter attacks. It was an astounding turnaround, though ultimately not one that could hold back a fluke penalty call off a corner.
... but they had no answer to going behind.
For all that domination, though, once they gave up that penalty and went behind, Germany fell to pieces. France's surge in confidence let them use halftime to patch up their problems, and Germany struggled to respond to those adjustments and to going down a goal.
Especially with Thomas Müller struggling to find space in the final third, Germany didn't have an obvious route to scoring that equalizing goal. They were shaky, they were struggling to find solutions, and France got better and better as Germany felt more and more pressure. It took making a very attacking substitution, replacing defensive midfielder Emre Can with an all-attack-minded player in Mario Götze to get Germany's attack moving again, but that came at the cost of exposing their back line more -- and it took only a few minutes for France to parlay that into a two-goal lead.
How great was it to see two teams actually trying to play proactively?
All throughout the knockout rounds, we've seen so much conservative, reactive football. Every match has had at least one of the two teams playing deep, playing defensively and wanting to outlast their opponent, willing to go to penalties to give themselves the best chance to win and advance. In a number of games, both teams played that way -- and let's be honest, it was utterly miserable to watch.
France and Germany, though, weren't interested in any of that. Yes, Germany started off playing conservatively, but that lasted all of 10 minutes. Yes, France had to play defensively when Germany were dominating the ball, but every time they got the ball back they looked to re-establish their aggressive possession game that got them this far. Then when the script flipped in the second half, with France holding the lead and Germany struggling, we didn't see either team back down at all -- France chased a second goal right away, while Germany threw everything they had at scoring an equalizer.
It was a welcome change from the drudgery that most of the Euro 2016 knockout rounds brought us, and we can only hope that the final is more of the same.