Lille (France) (AFP) – France coach Didier Deschamps hopes to put a controversy concerning midfielder Paul Pogba behind him when the Euro 2016 hosts close Group A against Switzerland in Lille on Sunday.
Dropped for Wednesday’s 2-0 win over Albania in Marseille, Juventus star Pogba came on at half-time and helped set up the second goal for Dimitri Payet deep into stoppage time with a trademark cross-field pass.
His reaction — a vengeful pump of the arm, apparently directed at the press box — caused a media furore, but the 23-year-old denied having performed an offensive gesture known in French as a ‘bras d’honneur’ and Deschamps has accepted his version of events.
“He’s given me his explanation and I trust him,” Deschamps told his pre-match press conference on Saturday. “I believe in his sincerity.”
With France having already secured a place in the last 16, the Pogba incident has dominated the build-up to the match at Stade Pierre-Mauroy.
Pogba’s explanation, in a statement sent to AFP, was that he was just doing his “usual dance”.
He had been tipped to emulate Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane by leading France to glory on home soil, as they did at the 1984 European Championship and the 1998 World Cup respectively.
But he was hauled off during France’s opening 2-1 win over Romania, with the score 1-1, and began the game against Albania on the bench.
His antics at Stade Velodrome have been compared to outbursts by Christophe Dugarry and Samir Nasri, both of whom goaded journalists after scoring for France at the start of major tournaments — the former in 1998, the latter at Euro 2012.
Pogba can at least look forward to a return to the starting XI against Switzerland, along with Antoine Griezmann, who came off the bench against Albania to head in the crucial last-minute opener.
N’Golo Kante and Olivier Giroud are both at risk of suspension, so Yohan Cabaye and Andre-Pierre Gignac could come into the team as well, with Deschamps expected to revert to a 4-3-3 formation.
– World Cup spark –
“I have a squad to manage and my 23 players are all available,” Deschamps said. “I’ll make choices as in the first two matches.”
Deschamps is eager for France to avoid a repeat of the fate that befell them at Euro 2012, when, under Laurent Blanc, a 2-0 loss to Sweden in their last group game condemned ‘Les Bleus’ to a quarter-final encounter with eventual champions Spain.
Two points clear of second-place Switzerland, France need a point to secure top spot in the group and with it a last 16 tie against the third-place team in Group C, D or E.
France won 5-2 when the teams last met in the Brazilian city of Salvador during the 2014 World Cup, a victory that sparked their tournament into life, and Deschamps will hope Sunday’s game proves a similar catalyst.
Having had to wait until the dying stages to take the lead against both Romania and Albania, his team are yet to produce a display worthy of their pre-tournament status as potential champions.
Switzerland were quick to seize on the Pogba controversy, the Swiss federation writing on Twitter: “Hey France, Pogba’s not your problem. WE are your problem!”
Vladimir Petkovic’s side, who beat Albania 1-0 in their opening game before drawing 1-1 with Romania, need only a point to secure one of the two automatic qualifying positions.
But Petkovic has not given up on first place.
“We have the possibility to play for first place, but our opponents are targeting that as well,” he said.
“It’s not just down to us. We’ll try to play our game and create problems. Finishing first would allow us to have a more straightforward opponent in the next round.”
Watford midfielder Valon Behrami is a doubt with a knee problem, while Petkovic has vowed not to rest Fabian Schaer, Granit Xhaka and Breel Embolo despite the fact they are each a booking away from suspension.
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