They’ve seen what happened to England and, with the weight of a entire nation’s expectations upon them, are determined not to suffer the same fate. Didier Deschamps and his players will be in no mood for complacency when they take on fairytale heroes Iceland in tonight’s eagerly anticipated Euro 2016 quarter-final.
In a tournament where the only predictable element has been its unpredictability (witness Wales as well as Iceland), Deschamps is leaving nothing to chance, keeping his team out of the spotlight at the squad’s base south of Paris and training behind closed doors in an attempt to diffuse any tension and ensure nothing derails progress as the country attempts to make home advantage count just as they did 32 years ago and again at the 1998 World Cup.
But host nation status has not always been plain sailing. Time after time, France have either had to come from behind and/or produce last-gasp goals to keep the dream alive. They’ve also had that element of luck every title-winning team needs. And all the while, either by choice or through injuries and suspensions, Deschamps has tinkered with his line-up and will do so again when the hosts confront Lars Lagerback’s Nordic underdogs at the national stadium where, barring nationwide disappointment either tonight or in the midweek semis, Les Blues will return a week today to try and lift the trophy.
Even without suspended Leicester City midfielder N’Golo Kanté and defender Adil Rami, France will start strong favourites to end Iceland’s remarkable roller-coaster ride but the demise of Roy Hodgson’s England has left the hosts wary.
“Iceland gave England a lesson in dignity,” said French full-back Bacary Sagna who has spent nine seasons at Arsenal and Manchester City. “In football anything can happen. Their whole team will cause problems for us. They played well against Portugal in the group stage and now England in the knockout, so it’s down to us to make sure it doesn’t happen to us.”
France, up until now, have dealt with the pressure relatively well without once overpowering the opposition. Defensively they have looked anything but secure and Deschamps, who lost his most reliable central defender in Raphael Varane through injury in the build-up to the finals, will have to field an untested pair at the heart of his back line tonight when Samuel Umtiti – who has just agreed a £22 million move from Lyon to Barcelona – replaces Rami and teams up with Laurent Koscielny. Yet with so much attacking prowess at their disposal – Antoine Griezmann’s brace against the Republic of Ireland being a case in point – France have managed to wear teams down and eventually deliver the killer blow.
“I don’t think we are particularly tense,” says Sagna. “Maybe because we’re the host side we’ve put ourselves under a bit more pressure. The danger in this match is not only the Iceland team, but also ourselves because we know we’re capable of playing really well. Maybe, we are trying too hard to do well. Perhaps that’s holding us back.”
Deschamps is also expected to start tonight with Yohan Cabaye in Kanté’s midfield berth. Anything other than a semi-final place will be considered failure but Deschamps will know that relying on yet another late, late comeback could prove a dangerous game. Expect a fast start to try and nullify Iceland’s renowned resilience. “Our opening minutes are very bad, we must improve in that department because we’re not going to get away with it every time,” says Griezmann, summing up the thoughts of a nation.
Of most pressing concern to France is the form of Juventus star Paul Pogba, who has too often flattered to deceive and is due a big midfield performance, plus the lack of a leader who can drive France on when the going gets tough instead of always having to rely on individual moments of brilliance. But with players of the calibre of Griezmann (32 goals for Atletico Madrid), Bayern Munich’s exciting youngster Kingsley Coman and West Ham’s Dmitri Payet, France look to have too much firepower – unless they freeze when confronted by the never-say-die blue wall which has so effectively negated the strengths of a string of previous opponents.
Payet wasn’t even in Deschamps’ plans as recently as eight months ago, but the West Ham playmaker’s electrifying form made it impossible for him to be overlooked. “When he wasn’t in the French team he never gave up, and now he is proving he is one of the most important and talented players, not just in the French side, but in Europe,” said French legend Zinedine Zidane, now in charge of Real Madrid. “He had an incredible season with West Ham, and now at the Euros is showing that no occasion is too big for him.”
A lot of that is down to the faith Deschamps has placed in Payet. For all his tinkering, enforced or otherwise, there is nevertheless a quiet satisfaction in the tactical ability of the French coach who of course has been there and worn the T-shirt as a player. While his side have yet to deliver an entirely convincing performance, most of his substitutions and tactical decisions have been sensible, notably against Ireland when he pushed Griezmann closer to Olivier Giroud up front for the second half. When France laboured in a 4-2-3-1 formation in the first half of their group game against Albania, Deschamps was again quick to react, reverting to a 4-3-3 formation which eventually wore down Albania’s defence.
“What I see is that all teams are equal in this Euro,” says back-up striker Andre-Pierre Gignac. “We have seen since the beginning of the competition, small teams bothering the big ones.”
Iceland, of course, being the ultimate case in point and Deschamps will do his utmost to prevent his players retreating into their collective shell, as England did. Nobody is mentioning the word “Frexit” – not yet anyway. “You shouldn’t be too calculated,” says Deschamps who lifted this trophy as a player 16 years ago. “The players need discipline but sometimes we’re better when we go a bit crazy. We really speeded things up and that’s when we are most dangerous.”