France's strength in depth an ominous sign for rest of Euro 2020 title contenders
Les Bleus' 'B' team comprises a number of top-level players who would be starters in most other sides competing at the European Championships
The European Championships has a noble tradition of giant-killing triumphs. Denmark won it in 1992, having been called in as last-minute replacements for banned Yugoslavia. Greece were winners in 2004. Five summers ago, Portugal failed to win a match within 90 minutes apart from their semi-final and still walked off with the trophy after an extra-time victory over France in the hosts’ own Paris backyard.
Euro 2020 might produce a novel winner, but the main suspense in the group phase of the 24-team tournament that begins on Friday surrounds whether it features a heavyweight faller early on.
The last edition’s gold and silver medallists, Portugal and France, as well as Germany are all plunged into potential first-round peril because they share Group F. That’s ‘F’ for fearful.
To have the last two World Cup winners – France and Germany – and the title-holders all pooled together, along with unlucky Hungary, gives the first two weeks a jolt of jeopardy, even if the format is forgiving: the four best third-placed finishers across the six groups will sneak into the first knockout round along with the top two from each group.
The trouble for Germany and Portugal, and especially for Hungary, is twofold: the strongest team in Group F looks very much like France. And the second strongest XI in Group F may well be France B, the players whom head coach Didier Deschamps could line up from his 26-man squad even if none of his ideal starting side were available.
Strength in depth is vital in a tournament that follows a sapping season, and France’s deep resources were on show on Tuesday night, when Les Bleus waltzed to a 3-0 win over Bulgaria in their last warm-up.
There were two goals from Olivier Giroud, who replaced Karim Benzema – Benzema picked up a knock, though it is “nothing dramatic,” reported Deschamps – and the second of Giroud’s goals finished off a cross from Wissam Ben Yedder, after a fine through-ball from Thomas Lemar.
Giroud, Lenar and Ben Yedder were all substitutes on the night; all three would be surprised to have a starting spot against Germany in the Group F opening fixture on Tuesday. But they would hardly feel overawed if they were selected. Giroud has just won the Champions League with Chelsea and is his country’s second highest goalscorer of all time. Lemar has just won La Liga with Atletico Madrid. Ben Yeddar scored 20 Ligue 1 goals in 2020-21 for Monaco, behind only Kylian Mbappe among Frenchmen in the rankings.
Through the rest of France’s back-ups are spread similar distinctions and good form. “We have a lot of strength and quality,” said Deschamps, who would be concerned if, say, N’Golo Kante was unfit, but knows he has good cover in most other positions.
That is partly why France start as favourites for Euro 2020. The squad has the same solidity that helped them to glory at the 2018 World Cup, and added maturity in key areas, notably in that Mbappe is now 22 and no longer a wide-eyed teenager. Real Madrid’s Benzema, exiled after a breakdown in his relationship with Deschamps, has been recalled, adding nous up front.
As for Portugal, on paper they are stronger contenders than they were at Euro 2016, with Bruno Fernandes, Bernardo Silva, Diogo Jota, Joao Felix, and Andre Silva among the attacking options to support Cristiano Ronaldo who were not in France five years ago. Ruben Dias is another in his first Euros, a centre-back any other team would like to have in their defence.
Belgium should be strong, even stronger if Kevin de Bruyne has fully shaken off the facial injury he suffered for Manchester City in the Champions League final and if Eden Hazard can find a level of fitness and confidence hidden from his performances over the last year at Madrid. Romelu Lukaku is fresh from a magnificent campaign with Inter Milan in Serie A.
England have short-term concerns over the fitness of some of their on-field leaders, Harry Maguire and Jordan Henderson, but a range of options in attack that even Deschamps might envy.
If the combined talents of Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, Phil Foden, Mason Mount, Jadon Sancho, Raheem Sterling and Jack Grealish do not find a route to the semi-finals, the tournament will be deemed an underwhelming disappointment. England have as close as is possible in the spread-out event to ‘home advantage’, with six possible fixtures at Wembley if they go all the way.
Quietly, Italy have been building up momentum, in the wake of the huge setback of not qualifying for Russia 2018. They have a blend of experience and youthful pizazz under Roberto Mancini. Spain have leaned heavily to youth, and have endured an untidy lead-in, but should make the knockout phase.
No tournament ever lightly dismisses Germany as pedigree contenders. But the Germans need to start well against a France already flexing their muscles.
Published: June 10, 2021 06:59 AM