World champions France remain worthy favourites to follow up their success in Russia three years ago with victory at the 2020 European Championships – but one or two worrying clouds have appeared this week in a previously clear blue sky.
A media furore surrounded the decision in May of head coach Didier Deschamps to recall shunned Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema after five and a half years in the wilderness over allegations of being involved in a ‘sex-tape’ blackmail involving team-mate Mathieu Valbuena in 2015.
The 33-year-old Benzema, who has always denied the accusations but could face court in October, was brought back in because despite his embarrassment of attacking riches, Deschamps could no longer justify denying Les Bleus the forward’s considerable talents after a brilliant season in Spain.
The pair buried a hatchet that had gone very deep when Benzema, of Algerian descent, suggested Deschamps was pandering to racist elements in France by leaving him out. And having gone through all that there seemed little point in taking on all the baggage involved with Benzema if he were not pencilled in to start in the Group F opener against Germany, meaning a likely relegation to the bench for the main beneficiary for the last six years - Olivier Giroud.
Benzema, during his controversial exile, one said Giroud was like a ‘go-kart’ to his ‘F1 car’. Maybe some humility could have been in order. In his two warm-up games Benzema has missed a penalty, and then limped off with a thigh injury in the 3-0 win over Bulgaria on Tuesday. Needless to say, Champions League winner Giroud scored twice off the bench against Bulgaria to take his goal tally for France to 46 – only five behind record-holder Thierry Henry.
But the new concern over whether Benzema will be fit to face the Germans is not the only fly in the ointment. It was clear to almost all that superstar Kylian Mbappe was either hanging onto the ball or looking elsewhere while Giroud made his runs.
And though without naming Mbappe, there was no doubt who Giroud was referring to when he said, “Sometimes you make the runs and the ball is not arriving. Perhaps we could have found each other better, there it is.”
Others were less diplomatic. Former France international Johan Micoud said of Mbappe’s actions, “It’s becoming embarrassing - and even when he was replaced. You have just played two warm-up matches, it has gone very well and when he came off the pitch it was as if the team had lost 4-0. His disappointment…at some point it is not all about you.”
And watching Le Touquet manager Ludovic Obraniak said, “Perhaps Giroud should say at the end of the match to Mbappe ‘Look, maybe Benzema is a better player than me but I deserve some respect, and also deserve that you play in the same way with me as you would with him’.”
Any rift in the camp could seriously destabilise Deschamps’ team with very tough group games looming against first Germany and then defending champions Portugal after a match in Budapest against Hungary.
But France – fitness permitting of Benzema, and the group - may line up for their much-anticipated clash with the Germans in Munich’s Allianz Arena with eight or even nine of the starting XI that beat Croatia 4-2 in that World Cup final at the Luzhniki Stadium in Moscow three years ago.
Hugo Lloris, Benjamin Pavard, Raphael Varane, Lucas Hernandez, N’Golo Kante, Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann, and Kylian Mbappe all look likely to be picked to start by Deschamps in a match Les Bleus cannot afford to lose. Giroud will join them if Benzema doesn’t make it.
The other two coming into the starting line-up since the final are set to be Paris Saint Germain centre-back Presnel Kimpembe, and Juventus midfielder Adrien Rabiot - who also patched up a row with Deschamps after refusing to be on the reserve list for Russia 2018.
Rabiot is seen as part of a three in midfield by Deschamps, but not as the ‘screen’ in front of the back four, a role that Kante performs so superbly.
Deschamps was expected to opt for a 4-4-2 formation against Germany, incorporating a diamond with Griezmann pushed up behind Mbappe and Benzema, and Pogba and Rabiot either side of the shielding Kante – with Lloris in goal behind Pavard, Varane, Kimpembe and Hernandez.
But if Benzema doesn’t make it, then the formation may revert to more of the 4-2-3-1 from the World Cup and Kingsley Coman could join Griezmann and Mbappe behind Giroud. France certainly also have the players and ability to adapt to switch to a 4-3-3.
They are looking to do something special by winning a Euros directly after lifting the World Cup trophy, but Deschamps did it as a player in 1998 and 2000.
Should there be injuries in the attack then Ousmane Dembele, Coman, Thomas Lemar can come in. Further back in a very defensively strong and compact unit, Lucas Digne at left-back has also impressed this season at Everton, and might very well come in for Hernandez.
To succeed against France, opponents are going to have to somehow break down the defensive shield - something akin to Obi Wan Kenobi turning off the tractor beam on the Death Star – and then be wary of the pace and skill on the counter-attack, with the likes of Pogba and Rabiot able to pick out the runs of Mbappe.
There was always the chance that Benzema’s return – opposed by many followers of France - might ruffle some feathers, because the hyped-up rivalry between him and Giroud has occasionally turned toxic among the public. Deschamps cannot afford for that to reach the dressing room.