Paris (AFP) – France have their eyes on adding the European Championship title to their World Cup crown this year, but first they begin their defence of the trophy they won in Russia three years ago as qualifying for the 2022 tournament in Qatar gets underway on Wednesday.
Coach Didier Deschamps has stuck with the core of the squad that lifted the trophy in Moscow in 2018 for a demanding triple-header of matches as the visit of Ukraine on Wednesday is followed by a long trip to play Kazakhstan on Sunday and then a stop-off in Bosnia and Herzegovina on March 31.
Finland will be France’s other opponents in Group D, and Les Bleus have to top the section to make sure of their place in Qatar at the end of next year.
They could do with a good start, even if Deschamps is not delighted with the demands facing his players this week.
“I am not going to hide that in terms of organisation, having three matches with two away from home makes things more complicated. We all have to put up with it,” said the man who has been in charge of France for almost nine years.
Only 14 members of his 26-man squad for the start of qualifying went to the last World Cup.
However, the only regulars from the Russian campaign missing are Barcelona defender Samuel Umtiti, whose career has been stalled by injuries, and midfielder Blaise Matuidi, who has gone off the radar since moving to MLS.
Some of those who have emerged or returned to the reckoning only serve to underline the strength in depth available to Deschamps.
Everton’s Lucas Digne and Real Madrid’s Ferland Mendy are excellent options at left-back, Clement Lenglet of Barcelona is a new contender in central defence and Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman adds quality in attack.
Juventus midfielder Adrien Rabiot’s international career looked over when he refused to go on the standby list for the Russian World Cup but he returned to feature heavily in last year’s Nations League campaign.
– Benzema still banished –
The elephant in the room remains Karim Benzema, who has 10 goals in his last nine games for Real Madrid but is still sidelined by France after his alleged role in a plot to blackmail Mathieu Valbuena in 2015.
“I don’t understand it, you don’t understand it, there are many people who don’t understand it,” said Real coach Zinedine Zidane last week.
Deschamps, though, will not pick Benzema and instead has faith in Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and the ever-reliable Olivier Giroud.
With 44 goals for his country, Giroud is closing on the record of 51 held by Thierry Henry.
“When you look statistically at what those three represent, that is what allowed France to become world champions,” Deschamps said this week.
France will also play in the Nations League finals this year, but the delayed Euro 2020 is what matters most.
“These matches will serve as a yardstick for us going into the Euro,” said goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris.
France beat Ukraine 7-1 in a friendly last October but their opponents were weakened by Covid-19 infections then and the tie at the Stade de France also evokes memories of the 2014 World Cup qualifiers.
Ukraine beat Les Bleus 2-0 in the first leg of a decisive play-off, but France rallied to win 3-0 in the return and Deschamps’ squad have not really looked back since.
“We need to get a result and we know the importance of starting well in qualifying campaigns. It is always a bit of an ordeal,” admitted Lloris.
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