France’s favorites’ tag at Euro 2016 has loosened a little bit. For months, the hosts' coach, Didier Deschamps, has had a multitude of riches from which to choose. Which of his many talented strikers would miss the cut? How would he choose between two holding midfielders N’Golo Kante and Lassana Diarra, both of whom had enjoyed outstanding seasons? And who would partner with Raphael Varane, a bit-part player at Real Madrid this season, but a star-caliber defender who would at least be fresh for the summer tournament?
Deschamps shut down the Karim Benzema issue very early, revealing in March that the Real Madrid forward would not be selected for the competition. Despite that, his striking options remain plentiful: Olivier Giroud will start at center forward, with Antoine Griezmann wide on one flank and either Anthony Martial or Dmitri Payet on the other.
The Benzema issue briefly re-ignited last week, with the player giving an inflammatory interview to Marca in which he claimed that the coach “has bowed to the pressure of a racist part of France.” This followed on the back of Eric Cantona suggesting Hatem Ben Arfa was also omitted because of his North African heritage. In their absence, Giroud has struck form at the right time: he's scored seven goals in his last six games, despite being booed by some sections of the crowd (some would rather Benzema was involved, which just shows the impossible task that Deschamps has).
Deschamps suffered another blow with the late drop-out of Diarra, who was outstanding for Marseille this season but a victim of a knee injury, which has allowed Morgan Schneiderlin to get a late call-up. Kante should edge Yohan Cabaye for the holding role alongside Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi, who are both ready to confirm themselves as elite performers on the international stage.
It’s behind the front six that the headaches for Deschamps have suddenly mounted. Varane is out of the tournament with a thigh injury, and Mamadou Sakho, his possible partner, is missing as he’s suspended for using a banned substance. Kurt Zouma has been out for five months, and Jeremy Mathieu also picked up a late injury, so that leaves Laurent Koscielny as the No. 1 center back–his club coach, Arsene Wenger, always said that should be the case–with Manchester City's Eliaquim Mangala as his partner.
Varane’s late dropout meant Deschamps was able to pick a replacement, but he did not initially go for Samuel Umtiti, the Lyon center back who was selected on his preliminary list. Umtiti is a left-sided player, and Deschamps needed a right-footer; so he went for Sevilla’s Adil Rami. Once Mathieu dropped out, Umtiti got his chance.
So Deschamps is missing arguably his first-, second-, fourth- and fifth-choice center backs. No wonder France fans are worried about the defense.
The fullbacks are Patrice Evra, 35, and Bacary Sagna, 33. Their ages tell you all about the alternatives in those positions; Lucas Digne and Christophe Jallet are the backups, but they are some way behind the top two.
Even the goalkeeper, Hugo Lloris, is seen as suspect by some in the host country. Out of the starting XI, he is the player who has the fewest medals to his name, and while that was his misfortune that he joined Lyon just after it stopped winning everything, it is seen, harshly, as a knock on him.
If this France team is going to go all the way and replicate home successes of Euro 1984 and World Cup 1998, it will do so with a team more like the Euro 2000 edition that succeeded its '98 world champions. In '98, the players knew they could play a whole match, with extra time, and not concede a goal.
In '00, it was more about the front line and scoring one more than the opposition.
With plenty of attacking strength in depth, Deschamps will be hoping to deploy his substitutes to maximum effect. Two of the subs in 1998 were David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry; their equivalents this time around could be Martial and Kingsley Coman, who could run riot against tired defenses. Trezeguet and Henry ended up scoring penalties in the '98 World Cup quarterfinal shootout win over Italy. If Martial and Coman have an impact, it is likely to spell good news for the host, whose expectation is to lift the trophy for a record-tying third time.