Paris (AFP) – Didier Deschamps’ France will be wary of falling victim to the same trap that ensnared England as the Euro 2016 hosts take on rank outsiders Iceland for a place in the semi-finals on Sunday.
France are vying for a record-equalling third European Championship title and go into their quarter-final as overwhelming favourites against a country with a population of just 330,000.
But Iceland, playing at their first major finals, have blown away any notion they were simply in France to make up the numbers.
The North Atlantic island nation held Portugal to a 1-1 draw in their opening group game, then sent Austria home with a last-gasp 2-1 victory before stunning England by the same scoreline in the last 16.
Defender Bacary Sagna compared Iceland’s remarkable run to that of Leicester City’s fairytale Premier League title success, with both country and city boasting almost identical populations.
“They are kind of the Leicester of Euro 2016,” said the Manchester City right-back.
“They deserve to be there. They showed in the qualifying tournament that they could beat the big teams like Netherlands and Czech Republic.
“It is a quality team and you must not underestimate them,” he added.
France needed late goals to overcome Romania and Albania in the group stage, while Antoine Griezmann rescued Les Bleus as they rallied after falling behind in the second minute against the Republic of Ireland in the last round.
Sagna warned his team-mates they will eventually be “punished” if they fail to address their tendency to start matches slowly as they head into the latter stages.
With Adil Rami suspended, Deschamps is set to hand 22-year-old Barcelona-bound Samuel Umtiti his international debut alongside Laurent Koscielny in defence.
N’Golo Kante is also serving a one-match ban with Kingsley Coman, Moussa Sissoko and Yohan Cabaye all candidates to replace the energetic midfielder who played such a huge role in that Leicester success.
– ‘Dream big’ –
Having plotted Iceland’s incredible rise alongside former Sweden boss Lars Lagerback, co-coach Heimir Hallgrimsson is again keen to look at his side’s limited expectations as an advantage.
“There is a big difference in the pressure on Iceland and on France,” said Hallgrimsson.
“France cannot lose the game, it would be horrible for the French nation. But the Icelandic people would be happy if we get a good performance against France.
“You dream big. But we are realistic, we can play the best game of our lives and still lose against France.”
Jon Dadi Bodvarsson, who scored against Austria at the Stade de France, expects the tournament hosts to give Iceland a much tougher time than they had against England.
“I think this will be a more difficult game. France play with more tempo on the ball and therefore it might be harder to defend,” he said.
“They have a very good change of pace and are quick. They have some good individuals and we just have to be ready for that.”
Iceland are sweating over the fitness of captain Aron Gunnarsson, who is nursing a back problem, but Lagerback on Friday said the Cardiff City midfielder — the team’s long-throw specialist — should recover in time to line up against the French.
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