EURO 2016: 5 DAYS TO GO

Football: Serene France exude confidence

A stellar midfield brings echoes of the triumphant campaigns at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, as Deschamps stresses stability

PARIS • For a side notorious for their internal bickering, it has been an extraordinarily peaceful run-up to Euro 2016 for France.

No rumours of squabbles between team-mates, no whispers of coaching disagreements, no talk of favouritism in selections. Les Bleus seem to revel in their tranquillity as they seek to win their first European Championship since 2000, especially since the scars of their disgraceful 2010 World Cup player revolt still linger.

Much of the newfound serenity is credited to head coach Didier Deschamps, who is almost fastidious in ensuring the harmony of his squad.

Take the Karim Benzema scandal, for example. Arguably the best striker available for France, the Real Madrid star has been frozen out of the Euro squad after allegedly blackmailing national team-mate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.

Despite calls for Benzema's reinstatement - and withering criticism from his arch-enemy Eric Cantona - Deschamps has stayed resolute in his decision not to include the striker.

"I have always thought that the team was above everything else. The decision on Karim has been made in regard to the interest of the squad," he said.

It is not just Benzema. Valbuena was also left out after an indifferent season with Lyon. Another unpredictable talent, Hatem Ben Arfa, also failed to make the squad.

Serenity and stability - these are traits that could also describe Deschamps, the former France captain who played the role of midfield anchor to perfection during France's 1998 World Cup- and 2000 Euro-winning campaigns.

Just like those triumphant tournaments, France can boast an exceptional midfield. The swashbuckling Paul Pogba, combined with the dynamism of Blaise Matuidi and N'Golo Kante, is a sight to behold. Meanwhile, Dimitri Payet is emerging as a creative force and a deadly free-kick taker.

Up front, even without Benzema, France have several good options. Antoine Griezmann has had a sublime season with Atletico Madrid with 32 goals in all competitions, while Anthony Martial and Olivier Giroud have logged solid campaigns with Manchester United and Arsenal respectively.

They will need to be at their lethal best against the rest of Group A, as Albania, Romania and Switzerland emphasise resolute defending ahead of goal plundering.

As Romania captain Razvan Rat freely admitted: "The idea is to not concede and from there, create our own chances and score.

"The most important thing is the defence, to work at the back together and then attack together. The most important thing in football is not to concede."

Only Switzerland offer some semblance of midfield and attacking flair, with the likes of Granit Xhaka and Xherdan Shaqiri. Otherwise, the three sides should pose few problems for France's defence.

And that suits the hosts, for their back line is not as steady as it should be, with key defender Raphael Varane out injured.

Nevertheless, with their group rivals offering little offensive threat, that defence line will have time to fine-tune their coordination for the knockout stages.

Having won the 1998 World Cup as well as Euro 1984 on home soil, France are widely expected to shine this time around as well. Many are tipping them to at least make the July 10 final.

It all depends on whether the home camp can be free of controversy and distractions, and in Deschamps, they at least have a resolute guardian of squad harmony.

REUTERS, THE GUARDIAN


Albania

Albania have already achieved their dream by simply qualifying for their first major tournament and they hope that the lack of psychological pressure in France might even take them beyond the group stage.

Seemingly eternal also-rans, Albania - one of the founding nations of Uefa back in 1954 - had never previously reached the World Cup or European Championship. Naturally, the 3-0 win over Armenia which clinched their Euro 2016 spot sparked wild scenes at home and among thousands of Albanians abroad.

In his four years as coach, Gianni de Biasi has tried various players to find the perfect combination, but while Albania play a strong defensive game, their attack lacks punch. Nevertheless, the core of the side has good top-level experience and will be very tough to break down.

Fifa ranking: 42

Manager: Gianni de Biasi

Squad - Goalkeepers: Etrit Berisha, Orges Shehi, Alban Hoxha. Defenders: Lorik Cana, Mergim Mavraj, Elseid Hysaj, Ansi Agolli, Arlind Ajeti, Naser Aliji, Frederic Veseli. Midfielders: Taulant Xhaka, Amir Abrashi, Ledian Memushaj, Migjen Masha, Burum Kukeli, Ergys Kace, Andi Lila, Ermir Lenjani, Odise Roshi. Forwards: Shkelzen Gashi, Sokol Cikalleshi, Bekim Balaj, Armando Sadiku.

Key player: Etrit Berisha. A fan favourite from the moment a string of memorable saves in his first international game earned him the jersey for the Euro 2016 qualifiers. Look out for him to not just save penalties, but take them as well.

REUTERS


France

Just like the 1998 World Cup-winning coach Aime Jacquet, Didier Deschamps is using a pragmatic team approach to Euro 2016 as France look to capture their first major title since Euro 2000.

"My aim was not to pick the best 23 players but to go for a group capable of going very far in the tournament together," he said.

While France built their 1998 World Cup success on a rock-solid defence, notably because they were lacking firepower at the other end, the current squad have a tendency to be shaky at the back.

They will, however, be guarded by a formidable midfield and a good bunch of strikers, with Deschamps hoping Paul Pogba will have as much influence as he has had with Juventus.

Fifa ranking: 17

Manager: Didier Deschamps

Squad - Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris, Steve Mandanda, Benoit Costil. Defenders: Bacary Sagna, Christophe Jallet, Laurent Koscielny, Eliaquim Mangala, Samuel Umtiti, Patrice Evra, Lucas Digne, Adil Rami. Midfielders: Paul Pogba, Blaise Matuidi, N'Golo Kante, Yohan Cabaye, Moussa Sissoko, Morgan Schneiderlin, Dimitri Payet. Forwards: Kingsley Coman, Antoine Griezmann, Anthony Martial, Olivier Giroud, Andre-Pierre Gignac.

Key player: Paul Pogba. A European champion with the France Under-21s, he has emerged as one of the most dominant young midfielders in the world, blessed with the technique, vision and power to stride past opponents with the ball, create chances and score goals.

REUTERS


Romania

With a team ethic built on discipline as well as a strong defence, Romania bear more than a passing resemblance to the Greece team which sprang out of nowhere to win Euro 2004.

While few observers expect Anghel Iordanescu's side to emulate that success, their ability to prevent other teams from scoring ensures they will be one of the most difficult sides to break down in France.

Undefeated in 15 matches since June 2014, they kept clean sheets in 12 of those games, including a goalless friendly against Spain last March.

The problem for Romania will be at the other end and a qualifying record of 11 goals from 10 matches - including a record goal drought of 428 minutes - suggests their games will be short on goalmouth thrills.

Fifa ranking: 22

Manager: Anghel Iordanescu

Squad - Goalkeepers: Ciprian Tatarusanu, Costel Pantilimon, Silviu Lung. Defenders: Cristian Sapunaru, Alexandru Matel, Vlad Chiriches, Dragos Grigore, Valerica Gaman, Cosmin Moti, Steliano Filip, Razvan Rat. Midfielders: Mihai Pintilii, Ovidiu Hoban, Adrian Popa, Gabriel Torje, Lucian Sanmartean, Nicolae Stanciu, Alexandru Chipciu, Andrei Prepelita. Forwards: Claudiu Keseru, Florin Andone, Bogdan Stancu, Denis Alibec.

Key player: Vlad Chiriches. The ex-Tottenham defender is the pivotal force in a defensive side who conceded just two goals in qualifying. He is an accomplished distributor of the ball from the back and his aerial dominance marks him out as one of the country's great defensive talents.

REUTERS


Switzerland

The future certainly looked bright for Switzerland two years ago, when they beat Ecuador and Honduras at the World Cup and took Argentina to within a minute of a penalty shoot-out.

However, the Swiss seem to have lost their way since veteran coach Ottmar Hitzfeld retired and was replaced by Vladimir Petkovic.

Petkovic had wanted Switzerland to dominate their matches against all opponents with an aggressive, attacking game, yet has struggled to impose that style.

The club form of many players, a perennial problem, has also dipped, and poor performances in recent friendlies have suggested that they could struggle to make it beyond the first round.

Fifa ranking: 15

Manager: Vladimir Petkovic

Squad - Goalkeepers: Roman Burki, Yann Sommer, Marwin Hitz. Defenders: Stephan Lichtsteiner, Michael Lang, Ricardo Rodriguez, Jacques Francois Moubandje, Johan Djourou, Fabian Schar, Steve von Bergen, Nico Elvedi. Midfielders: Valon Behrami, Granit Xhaka, Blerim Dzemaili, Gelson Fernandes, Fabian Frei, Denis Zakaria, Xherdan Shaqiri, Admir Mehmedi, Shani Tarashaj. Forwards: Haris Seferovic, Breel Embolo, Eren Derdiyok.

Key player: Granit Xhaka. Nicknamed "Little Einstein" because of his interest in science, Xhaka stands out with his intelligence, technique and superb distribution. Yet, he also has a volatile streak, having been sent off three times this past Bundesliga season.

REUTERS


Group Preview

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June 11, 3am (S'pore time) France v Romania

June 11, 9pm Albania v Switzerland

June 16, midnight Romania v Switzerland

June 16, 3am France v Albania

June 20, 3am France v Switzerland

June 20, 3am Romania v Albania

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 05, 2016, with the headline 'Serene France exude confidence'. Print Edition | Subscribe