Euro 2020 qualifiers: France aim to mark 100th game at Stade de France with win over Andorra
With big guns Mbappe, Pogba and Kante all absent from Tuesday's clash, the French manager will look to likes of Coman and Ikone to make their mark
France play their 100th fixture at the Stade de France on Tuesday, a landmark they have every right to turn sentimental about.
The place has seemed blessed for the men’s team since it first welcomed Les Bleus, as a state-of-the-art, elegantly airy arena in 1998. There, within a few months, the then captain Didier Deschamps lifted the country’s first World Cup.
It now hums to well-rehearsed songs celebrating the country’s second reign as world champions.
Well-rehearsed, because the spectator experience at the Saint-Denis venue, just north of Paris, can seem a little too choreographed, with the MCs who stand, microphones in hand and lanyards around necks, on a raised platform in front of the north end, conducting the gestures and chants of fans throughout games.
It is all rather stagey and official. But there’s a context. The governors of French football have become wary of spontaneous supporter expression lately.
Banners and chants, offensive to minority groups and attacking the game’s authorities have been displayed and heard at a number of club matches across France this season, leading to the temporary halting of two high-profile games, at Nice and at Metz, and to the suspension of the Ligue 2 meeting between Nancy and Le Mans.
None of that is allowed at the sanitised Stade de France, where the world champions, coached by Deschamps, on Saturday night gave their cheerleaders an easy gig to clap, France clocking up four goals against Albania’s one to retain top place in what might still become a tricky Group H in Euro 2020 qualifying.
It was a good night for Les Bleus to show off their strength-in-depth, their flourish in attack, though not a brilliant one for those beleaguered French football authorities.
Someone contrived to play the wrong national anthem when Albania’s footballers lined up, delaying kick-off for ten minutes while the correct anthem was found, with Albania’s players ready to walk off at the insult.
The Andorran anthem had been pumped over the PA by mistake, giving off an unfortunate impression that in the Stade de France’s offices the sound system’s anthem-catalogue operates on the principle that ‘A’ might just as well stand for Albania as for Andorra or for Any-Old-Also-Ran. Apologies were issued, including by President Macron.
More care will presumably be taken tonight, when Andorra are the guests for the 100th anniversary of Le Stade and Les Blues, and as likely an opponent as exists in Europe to grant France a big win. But further ahead, caution is advised against taking too much for granted.
Group H is top heavy, with France, Turkey and Iceland all on 12 points from five games so far, and the remaining three countries – Moldova are the other strugglers – well behind.
Next month, France host Turkey and travel to Iceland. If the same three-way lock applies to the top spots after Tuesday, an element of suspense, rare in the qualifying stages of a 24-team Euros, will grow.
Les Bleus’ 2-0 defeat in Turkey in June has produced it. Deschamp admits “we can’t erase the fact we didn’t do anything well that night [against Turkey], but I have no doubts or fears about the capabilities of my group of players.”
For the October matches, he hopes the injured Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, a trio of major absentees from this month's Albania and Andorra matches, will all be available.
In the meantime, opportunity presents itself to the likes of Kingsley Coman, the Bayern Munich winger who on Saturday celebrated his first start for Les Bleus in almost two years with a brace of goals, and Jonathan Ikone, who within eight minutes of replacing Coman for his France debut, had scored his first international goal.
The Lille striker is the ninth new cap under Deschamps since the World Cup, and although Ikone knows that in a forward line where Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann have protected status, and Olivier Giroud is valued by the manager, he is an outsider, he has perhaps moved a step ahead of Antony Martial and Alex Lacazette in the competition for supporting roles.
“We have been missing important players, in the dressing-room and on the pitch,” said Griezmann, who missed a penalty against Albania, “but those who came in did very well. We’re on the right track.”
Tonight, the main challenge may simply be the sound engineers finding the right track once it’s time for the anthems.
Updated: September 10, 2019 08:49 AM