Following their monumental success at the 2018 World Cup some eight months ago, global champions France have their sights set on further glory at the upcoming European Championships — and they kickstarted qualifying perfectly with a 4-1 triumph over Moldova.
Goals from Antoine Griezmann, Raphaël Varane and Olivier Giroud marked first-half domination from Les Bleus, and star prospect Kylian Mbappé completed his side's scoring in the 87th-minute.
Moldova went on to earn a late consolation through Vladimir Ambros, but it was a night on which the visitors utterly stole the show.
Story of the game
The Zimbru Stadium in Chisinau was packed with three distinct subsets of supporters: Moldova's most loyal gathered in hope of an upset; Moldova's less faithful arrived thrilled to merely witness the champions of the world on their home turf; and a considerable number of French fans travelled the miles to support their side as they kicked off their qualifying in the best possible fashion.
Just four minutes before the teams took to the pitch, Kingsley Coman was forced to withdraw due to a suspected hamstring injury. He was replaced by Blaise Matuidi, but it was a devastating blow for the Bayern Munich winger who had endured 18 successive games without inclusion in the national team.
A predictable pattern looked apparent from the outset as France controlled possession and patiently probed for openings in an organised, resolute Moldovan defence. One such opening came on the 8-minute mark when Mbappé played an incisive one-two with Giroud before side-stepping two challenges to open up a shot at goal, but the ball dragged slightly wide.
Benjamin Pavard then picked the ball up in acres of space on the right flank before drilling a pass into Griezmann. The Atletico Madrid forward controlled immaculately, but the effort with his weaker foot was tame.
With 20 minutes gone, France appeared to grow tired of the stalemate. A bombardment of chances at the Moldovan goal would follow.
The breakthrough finally arrived with a truly world class goal from Les Bleus. Griezmann stroked the ball into Paul Pogba on the edge of the area before darting into the goalwards. Manchester United's highly-decorated midfielder looked ready to take on the shot, a notion which proved to be deceiving — he calmly chipped the ball over the defence where Griezmann was lurking to emphatically volley home.
It took no more than three minutes for their lead to be doubled. A dangerous cross from Layvin Kurzawa looked to be dealt with by Oleg Reabciuk, but he touched the ball awkwardly wide of his own goal. From the resultant corner, a flat cross from Griezmann to the front post was met by Varane whose towering header could not be prevented.
Kurzawa was involved again when he fed Griezmann on the left wing. The 28-year old cut the ball back for the late run of Matuidi, but the Juventus midfielder saw a disappointing effort sail over the bar.
A triangle of interplay between Griezmann, Giroud and Mbappé created space for the latter to fire from the edge of the area, but Alexei Koselev was fortunate enough to save.
The 36th-minute brought France's third goal, and it was another of both supreme quality and unprecedented ease. Matuidi held off his marker to receive the ball at the byline before chipping a short cross into Giroud, and the target man stroked the ball past the onrushing goalkeeper.
In the closing stages of the first-half, Griezmann was granted a set-piece opportunity in a dangerous position. He opted against shooting and instead found the head of Giroud, who rise high but saw a powerful header claimed gratefully by Koselev.
After the restart, another free-kick from Griezmann — this time from wide — again found Giroud but his towering header flew uncharacteristically wide of the post.
Four minutes later, Mbappé dashed into the area and appeared to be taken down by a rash sliding challenge. The referee, Aleksandar Stavrev, took his time to make the call, but eventually instructed the Paris Saint-Germain forward to play on.
The second-half was certainly less eventful than the first. Moldova had made a defensive change in midfield, replacing playmaker Eugeniu Cociuc with Artiom Rozguniuc, predominantly a centre-half. Additionally, France looked deprived of the relative intensity which had conjured moments of brilliance in the opening 45 minutes.
With less than 25 minutes remaining to play, Les Bleus had quick-fire opportunities to add a fourth. First, Pogba drove the ball at goal from the centre of the box and Koselev did well to parry clear, before an audacious strike from Pavard came agonisingly close to dipping beneath the crossbar.
Koselev then made another excellent stop when a curling free-kick from Griezmann found Pogba in the area. The 26-year old glanced his header towards the far post but the Fortuna Sittard goalkeeper remarkably saved.
France finally notched their fourth and final goal with regulation time drawing to a close. Substitute Thomas Lemar won possession deep into Moldova's half and effortlessly supplied Mbappé — an unerring finish from the 20-year old, one-on-one with Koselev, was never in doubt.
To a neutral, what followed next will give the impression of a mere consolation, but it was a memorable moment for Moldova. The ball was crossed from the right flank Vitalie Damascan was on hand to head at goal — Hugo Lloris managed to save the initial effort, but could not prevent the rebound as Ambros prodded home to a raucous cheer from the home crowd.
In stoppage time, Mbappé had one more penalty claim when he darted down the left channel before meeting Koselev. The forward dramatised into a lunge at ground and was booked for simulation.
Takeaways from the match
Moldovan gameplan semi-effective
Head coach Alexandru Spiridon can hardly be blamed for the scoreline here — after all, how does anyone configure themselves when faced with World Cup winners?
There were bold attempts to play out from the back and maintain solidity in defence. Moldova were certainly hard to break down as the majority of those in red resided in their defensive third; though they were invariably undone by moments of magic from some of the most gifted footballers on the planet.
Playing out from the back supposedly gave Moldova time to adjust from their conservative set-up into a more attacking shape. While this rarely materialised, Ambros's goal was special for the team, the manager, and the nation as a whole.
A walk in the park for France
For all that Moldova can be praised, the scoreline doesn't do justice to the sheer dominance exerted by Les Bleus on the night.
Half-hearted pressing was often enough to force their opponents into mistakes, and half-hearted passing happened to be world class nonetheless. Players of the ilk of Varane, Pogba, Mbappé, and particularly Griezmann proved too hot to handle for their hosts.
Didier Deschamps and France have often been criticised for a damaging complacency during qualifying campaigns, but this game would suggest they have overcome such a trend with an emphatic, if not enthusiastic, victory.
Moldova face another tough task as they visit Turkey on Monday night while France prepare for the visit of 2016 quarter-finalists Iceland.