By Andy SCOTT | AFP News-7 June 2016
France are going for a hat-trick of major titles on home territory at Euro 2016 and have a kind draw but coach Didier Deschamps is seeking to douse national expectations.
Les Bleus will face Switzerland, Romania and an Albania side appearing at their first major finals in Group A as they look to add to their 1984 European Championship and the 1998 World Cup titles.
But as anticipation builds ahead of their opening game against Romania on Friday, Deschamps — who lifted the World Cup as a player 18 years ago — knows that his team still have to do the business on the park.
“What is an easy draw? An easy draw is when you have won the matches, that is all!” he told French newspaper La Depeche.
“I suppose you are going to tell me that we could have got more renowned opponents. Romania are not flashy, is that it? But they didn’t qualify by accident, and neither did Albania nor Switzerland.”
Having won nine of 10 friendly games since September, France are in good form. And they have one of the most potent attacks on the continent, making them one of the overall favourites.
“We will be ready. We have been preparing for two years,” said Deschamps after France beat Scotland 3-0 in their final warm-up game in Metz on Saturday.
France are without Real Madrid star Karim Benzema, sidelined due to his involvement in the Mathieu Valbuena sextape blackmail scandal.
– Xhaka brothers meet –
The loss of Mamadou Sakho, not picked after a positive doping test, and injuries to Raphael Varane, Lassana Diarra and others leave question marks in defence and midfield.
But N’Golo Kante has emerged in the middle and the presence of players such as Antoine Griezmann, Dimitri Payet and Anthony Martial in attack means the loss of Benzema may scarcely be felt.
That attack will look to prove itself immediately against Romania, whose defensive strength carried them through qualifying.
Under veteran coach Anghel Iordanescu, in his third spell at the helm, Romania are a team of few stars apart from exciting attacking midfielder Nicolae Stanciu.
“Everything is based on unity of the group, tactical discipline and willingness to perform,” said Iordanescu, who took Romania to the last 16 of the 1998 World Cup.
There will be few more intriguing contests in the group stage than Switzerland’s meeting with Albania in Lens on Saturday.
That game will see Swiss midfielder Granit Xhaka, recently signed by Arsenal, come up against his elder brother Taulant playing for Albania.
The siblings were born in Basel to Kosovar-Albanian parents and both represented Switzerland at youth level. They would be the first brothers to meet in a European Championship finals game.
The links between the countries are multiple. Half a dozen members of the Albanian squad were born in Switzerland, including Xhaka and striker Shkelzen Gashi, formerly of Basel.
Skipper Lorik Cana spent a decade in Switzerland as a child and has a Swiss passport.
Now with Nantes, he also considers France his “second home” and will lead the Balkan nation on the field as they prepare for their first major tournament appearance.
“I started with the national team more than 13 years ago now. My objective has always been to play in a major tournament with Albania,” Cana, born in Kosovo, told AFP.
“That it should happen in France, where I grew up as a footballer and where I have my family, is all the more special.”
Coached by the Italian Gianni De Biasi, Albania are hoping to progress to the knockout stages, at least as one of the best third-placed teams.
But the Swiss, whose star player going forward is the Kosovar-born Xherdan Shaqiri of Stoke City, are on paper Group A’s strongest side behind the hosts.