HistoryAgony is perhaps the only word that could describe how the French will have felt when that final whistle blew in Paris back on 10 July 2016.
Having hosted the tournament and seen off then World Champions Germany in the semi-finals, there was every reason to be optimistic that Didier Deschamps’ side could get the job done against Portugal, who themselves had been taken to pretty much 120 minutes and a penalty shoot-out in two of their three knockout games en route to the final.
That optimism was only boosted when, on 25 minutes, Cristiano Ronaldo was forced off with an injury, in tears. Sadly, for France, that proved to be something of a catalyst for Portugal.
For all the work of the French, they could not break down an organised Portuguese side, with Ronaldo acting as chief cheerleader and tactical organiser from the touchlines.
With Andre-Pierre Gignac hitting the post in stoppage time, it just felt like it wasn’t to be their night. So it proved, when shortly into the second period of injury time, Lille forward Eder, scored from 25 yards.
The ecstasy from the Portuguese at full time was only matched with the shock of disappointment felt by the hosts.
Rewind the clock back 16 years however and it was the French who were delivering the agonising blow to their opponents at Euro 2000.
After a Zinedine Zidane masterclass saw France beat Spain, it took a controversial golden goal penalty deep into extra time for France to see off Portugal to make it to the final.
In the final they would face Italy, with Dino Zoff’ side taking the lead early in the second half. With a matter of seconds remaining, heartbreak struck for the Italians as Sylvain Wiltord scored the latest of goals to take the game to extra time.
Towards the end of the first period of extra time, Robert Pires found space to cut the ball back before David Trezeguet scored the golden goal winner, high into the top corner.
The European Championship win of 2000 crowned a golden period in French football, with many claiming the team that played in that tournament were actually superior to the one which took World Cup glory two years prior.
2000 was the second time France had taken the European top honour after their success in 1984 on home soil. That team, coached by the legendary Michel Hidalgo oozed class, with captain Michel Platini leading the way, including a goal in the final.
At the time, Platini was just one corner of the infamous “carre magique”, alongside Alain Giresse, Jean Tigana and Luis Fernandez, with the four adding a third place finish at the 1986 World Cup to their ’84 success.
The period between the success of 2000 and the agony of 2016, saw France undergo a rocky period.
At the European Championships, they were one of the teams to fall victims to the surprising Greek side in 2004, going out in the quarter finals, a dismal 2008 tournament saw them finish bottom of their group, losing to Italy and the Netherlands and mustering only a draw against Romania.
This began a real low period for France, then under Raymond Domenech, which climaxed with the notorious incident in South Africa in 2010.
Laurent Blanc began the seeds of recovery once Domenech left in 2010 and their 2012 championships displayed a slight improvement, going out in the quarter finals to eventual winners, Spain.
Taking charge after the tournament, Deschamps has fully completed the return to top and a win at this year’ tournament will surely cement his place as one of the most successful managers of all time.
There can’t be too many coaches who have proved as successful as Deschamps, yet continue to face a barrage of questions over his ability at almost every juncture.
Put simply, “the water carrier” has brought many of the characteristics that defined him as a player, into his role as coach. A pragmatic man, Deschamps through his time, has shown a willingness to forgo flair for results.
His no-nonsense playing style brought him a plethora of trophies and a similar style has proved just as successful in management. Club success at Monaco, Juventus and Marseille saw him eventually given the top job after Euro 2012. Since then, his tournament record has been pretty remarkable.
A narrow quarter final loss to eventual winners Germany at the 2014 World Cup, the run to the final in 2016, including a revenge win over the Germans in the semi-final and of course, the glory of 2018 and the World Cup win which saw Deschamps join an elite list of those to win the trophy as player and manager.
One of his core philosophies, and where some of his predecessors failed, was his strong belief that the harmony of a squad is one of the most important factors. Those that sought to disrupt that harmony were quickly moved aside in favour of players who were willing to sign up to Deschamps ideas.
Over the years Gignac, Dimitri Payet, Adrien Rabiot and Karim Benzema have all fallen victim to the axe from Deschamps for various misdemeanours, but in each instance, forgiveness was eventually granted, and they all subsequently found their way back into the reckoning.
Often criticised for his perceived “defensive style”, despite all the attacking potential he has at his disposal, it is easy to forget that his sides do “turn it on” when they need to.
At both Euro 2016 and the 2018 World Cup, his sides struggled to look impressive in the group stages, however proved to be top scorers in the knockout rounds each time.
The TeamThis is the squad France registered for the 2020 European Championships:
Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris (Tottenham Hotspur), Steve Mandanda (Marseille), Mike Maignan (Lille).
Defenders: Raphael Varane (Real Madrid), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain), Clement Lenglet (Barcelona), Jules Kounde (Sevilla), Kurt Zouma (Chelsea), Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich), Leo Dubois (Lyon), Lucas Hernandez (Bayern Munich), Lucas Digne (Everton).
Midfielders: Paul Pogba (Manchester United), N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Thomas Lemar (Atletico Madrid), Moussa Sissoko (Tottenham Hotspur), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich).
Forwards: Antoine Griezmann (Barcelona), Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Wissam Ben Yedder (Monaco), Marcus Thuram (Borussia Monchengladbach).
There aren’t many countries who can put a squad together with this level of talent. You could even make a very competitive team with the players who haven’t even been selected.
The core of the squad from the 2018 World Cup success remain, with Blaise Matuidi and Samuel Umtiti being the major players from that squad missing.
On paper, it is easy to see why France are strong favourites to take the title, it is just important that Deschamps doesn’t let that belief get the better of his players.
I mean, it had to be really. Going into the 2018 World Cup, few could have predicted just how great of an impact Mbappe would have had on the global stage. Boy did he rise to it. The performance against Argentina was the real highlight to go along with a goal in the final.
Since then, he has only improved season after season.
He comes into this tournament off the back of his best scoring season, hitting 42 goals in all competitions, he has recently been awarded Ligue 1 player of the season and few can argue that he is the next global superstar of the game, if he isn’t already.
All of that talent and all of those accolades at such a young age can be a dangerous cocktail though and it is important that Mbappe doesn’t let his ego get in the way of his growth and development.
In France’ last friendly, Olivier Giroud had a thinly veiled criticism over Mbappe’ lack of passing, something which the player reportedly didn’t take too kindly to. There was some truth to what Giroud was saying though.
At PSG, it is pretty much the Mbappe and Neymar show, but for his country, Mbappe must play as a team, especially with the tactics which Deschamps deploys.
The weight of expectation will be on Mbappe this time around, but if he approaches it as he has every other challenge put in his way, he should absolutely shine once again.
As long as his contract situation at PSG doesn’t take precedence, this could really be the tournament where Mbappe stakes his claim to take over from Ronaldo and Lionel Messi.
It’s the return many wanted but few expected. Benzema has spent over fives years frozen out of the national setup following the scandal over his alleged role in the blackmailing of teammate Mathieu Valbuena and the subsequent fall-out he had with the French Football Federation and Deschamps himself.
Since then, Giroud has taken on the role as first choice striker and his record in that position speaks for itself as the Chelsea forward has gone on to become his country’s second highest goal scorer and is tantalisingly close to taking the top spot from Thierry Henry.
During that period, Benzema has excelled with los Blancos, performing at an incredibly high level and scoring goals for fun.
Calls for Benzema to return to the squad have been pretty consistent since he was banished and not a press conference went by where Deschamps wasn’t asked a question about the Real Madrid striker.
There was never any doubt that Benzema has been a superb player at club level, but at international standards he really struggled to re-create that form. He infamously went over 1,200 minutes without scoring a goal and with his attitude at times not really fitting the Deschamps model of “squad harmony” over everything, his non-selection made a degree of since.
Leading up to the tournament however, and off the back of another strong season in la Liga, Deschamps and his assistant Guy Stephan met with Benzema to discuss his future.
By all accounts the meeting went amicably and when rumours began that Benzema could actually make a return, few could have believed it would actually happen. Deschamps, in another display of his ability for forgiveness, pulled the trigger on the Benzema return, selecting him in his squad.
His return does bring about a level of excitement at just how devastating a front three of Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Benzema could be. During the two pre-tournament friendlies against Wales and Bulgaria, there were fleeting glimpses that something special could indeed materialise.
It is still early days but Benzema now has the chance to right the wrongs of the past.
Possible Breakthrough PlayerThe only new face to be selected by Deschamps, Kounde’s rise has been pretty meteoric. Since breaking through at Bordeaux, Kounde earned a move to Sevilla where he quickly became a starter for the la Liga side.
A number of hugely impressive displays resulted in him being part of the team which won the Europa League in 2020 and making an appearance in the official Squad of the Tournament.
He has only made a handful of appearances at under-21 level but his spot in the senior squad has been well deserved. Athletic and with a reading of the game which belies his age, Kounde should find himself in the national set up for years to come.
With the likes of Varane and Zouma ahead of him for that right sided centre back spot and despite his ability to play at right back as well, he may not see many minutes during the tournament, but you can guarantee that if given an opportunity, Kounde will be sure to prove his selection was no wild card and that he remains one of the brightest young centre backs around.
With so many talented household names throughout the squad, it’s difficult to pick out anyone as a particular “secret weapon”, but Bayern Munich midfielder Corentin Tolisso could be the closest to fit that category.
Whilst his time in Bavaria has been hampered by injury, his versatility and dependability are attributes which Deschamps adores.
For France, he will likely be deployed in the midfield three alongside Kante and Pogba, battling it out against Rabiot. In the friendly against Bulgaria, he was deployed in the “sentinel” role, sitting as the deepest of the three midfielders.
This freed up both Kante and Pogba to play in a more forward mindset. He looked comfortable and impressed in that position, able to track and cover well, with the added benefit of being confident and sensible on the ball.
It may be that against more threatening opposition, he switches out to the left of that midfield trio but his ability to play in so many positions, will ensure he isn’t fazed.
Reliable and a workhorse, Tolisso could well fit the Blaise Matuidi role of 2018, insomuch as being an integral part of the team, without being the flashy player everyone talks about.
Deschamps has been pretty rigid with his 4-2-3-1 formation for a number of years now and with good reason as it won him the World Cup. Mbappe and Coman/Dembele playing either side of Griezmann who in turn sits just behind Giroud.
It’s a system which allows the pace and nimbleness of former trio to feed off knock-downs and flick-ons from Giroud, with the Chelsea striker playing a target man like role.
With the reintroduction of Benzema to the squad, I would expect a move to a 4-3-3. This allows for Benzema to provide more movement than Giroud, with Mbappe and Griezmann given the freedom to cut in from wide positions.
Pogba, who is like a different player under Deschamps, can look to pull the strings from midfield, ably supported by Kante and Tolisso/Rabiot.
The full-backs, likely Hernandez and Pavard are given opportunities to get forward, but with both technically converted centre-backs, they are dependable in defence.
What are their chances?It’s undeniably the toughest group of all. Both Germany and Portugal have a good blend of experienced veterans and exciting young talent. France, therefore, need to ensure they are on their A-game from the get-go.
Get through the group, and I expect them to, then its into knockout football which as we have discussed, is where Deschamps shines. Their first group match being against Germany will give everyone a good benchmark over how “on it” France really are.
If there is a weak point in the starting XI, it is the left sided centre back position. Kimpembe showed last season he is still capable of a major gaff, and Clement Lenglet hardly got Barcelona fans singing his praises.
Here’s hoping the name “Aymeric Laporte” doesn’t return to haunt Deschamps, now he has declared his allegiance to Spain.
The main blocker on their chances of winning the entire tournament is believing their own hype too much. The inclusion of Benzema also carries its own risks as it could disrupt the formula which won them the World Cup.
Deschamps has spent years cultivating a mindset not to allow negativity to spread internally, so as long as no-one goes “rogue”, and there is no squad implosion, it is difficult to see them not lifting the trophy.
My PredictionDeschamps has given what many wanted, in a recall for Benzema, so the onus will be on the Real Madrid man to show he has learned his lesson and can perform for his country when it matters.
If he can replicate club form, then there is enough in that front three alone to blast away most opponents. Kante is coming into the tournament looking back to his best and Pogba looks like the player Old Trafford rarely sees.
Players off the bench ensure there is little weakness to the team if called upon.
Get out of the group and I have the belief in Deschamps and his players that they will end up victorious come 11 July at Wembley.
The tough group draw does mean that France can ill afford to be the slow starters they have been in the past, but during his tenure, Deschamps has given me no reason to believe he can’t navigate his team through.
Written by Rich Allen - @rich_allen85