That holders France are through to a second consecutive World Cup final is a little down to the goals of Kylian Mbappe, and a lot to the extraordinary performances of Antoine Griezmann.
The 31-year-old’s transformation has symbolized more than anything else the man management of France coach Didier Deschamps, who reinvented Griezmann’s role partly out of necessity after being hit by a plague of injuries coming into the tournament.
Losing Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante –- France’s starting midfield pairing in their triumphant campaign four years ago -– before the tournament forced Deschamps to come up with a new solution in that area of the pitch, and so he turned to Griezmann.
Griezmann, the top scorer at Euro 2016 with six goals as hosts France reached the final but lost in extra time to Portugal, is now France’s midfield playmaker, a creator of goals but also a tireless worker.
Karim Benzema, the Ballon d’Or winner, was ruled out after injuring himself in training before a ball was kicked in Qatar.
“He is doing the job of Pogba, Kante, and Karim Benzema,” former Argentina defender Pablo Zabaleta told AFP.
If the 2016 team was dubbed the “Griezmann Generation”, it was the emergence of Kylian Mbappe that helped France take the next step and win the World Cup in 2018.
Over time Griezmann has gradually adapted his game to become more of a support player for France’s new superstar, but that has not diminished his importance.
In Qatar, he has operated to the right of Aurelien Tchouameni in a midfield trio, with Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, and Ousmane Dembele in front of him.
Griezmann had already been outstanding before his performance against England in the quarterfinals, when he robbed possession and committed tactical fouls but also moved the ball around superbly and produced a brilliant assist for Giroud’s winner.
Again he came into his own in the semifinal against Morocco, regularly helping break up possession when France were under pressure in the second half.
“My role is quite free,” Griezmann, who has 42 international goals but none now in 15 appearances since November last year, said during the tournament.
“With three players in front of me, I have more possibilities and more choices. Maybe I am not as close to the opposition area. I am not going to have 50 shots on goal per game but I am not worried about scoring goals.
“I think the team needs me more at the heart of the action. We need that balance.”
Griezmann, nicknamed “The Little Prince”, has remarkably now played 73 consecutive matches for France, beating by a distance the previous national record of 1998 World Cup winner Patrick Vieira, who played 44 games in a row.
He has not missed a match for France since June 2017, and there was no question of Deschamps losing faith in the player even as he struggled earlier this season at Atletico Madrid.
Griezmann, who was born in Macon near Lyon but has spent his entire club career in Spain, had largely been reduced to substitute appearances for Diego Simeone’s side.
Atletico were trying to escape paying a reported obligatory fee of 40 million euros ($42.6m) to Barcelona if he played over a certain number of matches.
But they bought him back permanently in October after negotiating a new deal, and he had started a total of 12 games before the World Cup, scoring six goals.
Now he is repaying the faith shown in him by Deschamps, who gave Griezmann his international debut as a 22-year-old in 2014.
“I owe him so much. He was the one who called me up and we have been together ever since,” said the former Real Sociedad player.
“I try to do everything to ensure he keeps having confidence in me. Every game, every action is me saying thank you to him. I want to do all I can to make him proud of his No 7.”
If he can help France beat Argentina and lift the trophy he must also be a serious contender to win the Golden Ball for the tournament’s outstanding player.
But Lionel Messi, his former Barcelona teammate, is standing in his way.
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