Euro 2016 France v Iceland: France need to start against Iceland like they finished against Ireland
You call that lucky?” Patrice Evra asked of his questioner, ahead of France’s Euro 2016 quarter-final against Iceland.
The case had been presented to the French squad’s most experienced player that a sequence of opponents between the host nation and place in the last four of the competition that reads Romania, Albania, Switzerland, Ireland and Iceland was … well, it looked quite kind and gentle really.
So, was it lucky?
“I think we should stop with that idea straight away,” Evra said. “If we are lucky enough to get beyond Iceland, we get Italy or Germany.”
Luck, he implied, had evaded every team that ended up, after the group phase, in France’s side of the draw, where trapdoors have already opened up beneath Spain, the defending champions, and England, a team who regard themselves as heavyweights.
Luck and status are not enough, on the evidence of the competition so far, to crack the Icelanders. Their defensive solidity and effectiveness on the break at set-pieces are two formulas that have troubled France so far in a tournament where the hosts have been penetrating for periods, bland for swathes of games, particularly early on.
The prospect of an ambush – two goals in 12 first-half minutes – like Iceland pulled off against England requires vigilance, and there are problems with the French armour.
Manager Didier Deschamps is obliged to make changes to the team who beat Ireland, coming back from 1-0 down, to reach the last eight, alterations to what had become established as his first-choice line-up.
Central defender Adil Rami, who has had his insecure moments in the tournament, especially against the Irish, is suspended, and in ordinary circumstances that might deepen a crisis that had been building for some months.
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Already France have lost several centre-halves: Raphael Varane is injured, Mahmadou Sakho was not considered while under the cloud of a Uefa doping suspension, imposed after a Europa League meeting between his club, Liverpool, and Borussia Dortmund.
Barcelona stopper Jeremy Mathieu withdrew from the squad with injury ahead of the competition, which paved the way for Rami’s late call-up.
His likely deputy, and the man with a fine chance of now furthering his reputation is Samuel Umtiti, the 22-year-old Cameroon-born defender who appears on the verge of joining Barcelona from Lyon.
He should get the nod of Deschamps to partner Laurent Koscielny at the heart of the back four ahead of the more skittish Eliaquim Mangala, of Manchester City.
In midfield, meanwhile, another suspension means finding an alternative for N’Golo Kante, first-choice shield in front of the back four.
Here, a Deschamps favourite has his chance to give France both reassurance against counter-attacks and perhaps a great range of bold passing from deep.
Yohan Cabaye, 30, and a starter in the last two quarter-finals of major tournaments that have been the terminal games of France’s campaigns, at Euro 2012, and the 2014 World Cup, is straining at the leash to make this competition a longer one than those were.
So much for the enforced changes. More suspense hangs on how France will line up in attack.
Against Ireland, deficit turned into victory thanks to a half-time juggling of the front line, a transformation from 4-3-3 to something more like a pairing up front with Antoine Griezmann, scorer of both France’s goals against the Irish, playing off Olivier Giroud, who set up one of Griezmann’s goals.
Stick with that, and Deschamps would gain popular applause. Look stodgy in the opening phase of the game, and that pattern will begin to look like an incorrigible French problem.
“We have only made the difference in the later minutes of several games recently,” noted Bacary Sagna, chief lieutenant to Evra in terms of experience. “One day we will punished for that.
“We need to start against Iceland as we finished against Ireland.”
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Updated: July 2, 2016 04:00 AM