MARSEILLE — A 90th-minute header by substitute striker Antoine Griezmann and a stoppage-time special by Dimitri Payet secured France a heartstopping 2-0 win over Albania on Wednesday that sent the hosts through as the first team into the last 16 of Euro 2016.
France had struggled to make any impression on a determined Albanian defence and as the clock ticked into the last minute neither team had managed a single shot on target — though both had hit a post.
France had needed an 89th-minute Payet goal to beat Romania in their first game and it was even later this time when centre back Adil Rami swung in a hopeful cross that Griezmann guided expertly home.
The 67,000 Stade Velodrome crowd — minus 20,000 stunned Albanians — erupted in a wave of noise, which was repeated five minutes later when Payet cut inside to smash in the second.
With six points France are guaranteed to finish in the top two of Group A, with Switzerland, on four points after drawing with Romania earlier, favourites to join them in the knockout phase.
Once the euphoria of the moment had elapsed, Payet was able to take a broad view. “It would be good if we could avoid that type of crazy scenario,” he said after picking up his second successive man of the match award.
“What we have to do is start matches the way we started the second half. With Paul (Pogba) and Griezou (Griezmann) coming on and a different system, it worked a lot better.”
It needed to.
France were hesitant and risk-averse in a forgettable first half as the ploy of using the speed of Kingsley Coman and Anthony Martial out wide failed to come off.
Albania, desperate to make their mark in their first major tournament after an early red card scuppered their chances in their opening game against Switzerland, defended with gusto and almost went ahead early in the second half when French full back Bacary Sagna bundled the ball against his own post.
With the halftime introduction of Pogba and then Griezmann France eventually got moving as Olivier Giroud sent a header wide then thumped another against a post.
However, with Albania taking every opportunity to slow the game — half the team taking it in turns to go down with cramp — it was looking as if France were going to have to settle for a point.
Griezmann, however, who had a fantastic season for Atletico Madrid, showed Giroud how to connect with a header, with Payet capping another enterprising display by adding the icing after a quickfire break.
Relieved France coach Didier Deschamps accepted his original approach had not worked but was pleased that the tactical switches paid off.
“We didn’t do enough in the first half but the second half was a lot better,” he said.
“The players who came on made a difference. We are not stuck with one format we can switch things, we had a much better balance in the second half.
“The big teams here are having problems. There are no easy opponents, as you could see again tonight.”
That was certainly true of Albania, who grew in confidence as the night went on.
“We didn’t just defend — we had clear-cut chances,” said their coach Gianni De Biasi. “But if you don’t score, you don’t win.”