Monday 23 May 2016

Euro 2016 Preview: Allez Les Bleus!

The French national football team is never far away from controversy, but at least manager Didier Deschamps has managed to avoid any further embarrassment by leaving Mathieu Valbuena out of his 23-man squad for Euro 2016. Last year, the Lyon midfielder and Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema were at the heart of a bizarre blackmail story, which saw Benzema arrested and investigated for attempting to extort money from his former team-mate over a sex tape. Deschamps claims Valbuena was omitted from the squad because of ‘fitness problems’. The French Football Federation has said it will not Benzema, who is still being investigated.

Tabloid gossip aside, France were the last host nation to with the European Championship, in 1984 and, having reached the World Cup quarter-finals in 2014 under Deschamps, are favourites to win again this time. Despite automatic qualification as the host nation, under a UEFA initiative France effectively played a ‘qualifying’ campaign, in the form of friendly matches, home and away, against the five teams in qualifying Group I – Portugal, Albania, Denmark, Serbia and Armenia – and lost just once, 1-0 to Albania, away, last June. “Les Bleus” may not have played a competitive match since beating Russia 4-2 at the Stade de France in March, but have friendlies against Cameroon on May 30 and Scotland on June 4 to blow away any cobwebs.

The absence of Benzema and Real Madrid team-mate Raphael Varane is obviously not ideal, but the French squad has plenty of strength in depth. Paris St-Germain playmaker Blaise Matuidi – described by Didier Deschamps as the ‘first name on the team sheet’ – is the driving force behind a dynamic and athletic midfield, which also features Paul Pogba of Juventus and N’Golo Kante of Leicester City, who made his international debut against the Netherlands in March.

Even without Benzema, Didier Deschamps can call on the likes of Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Anthony Martial (Manchester United) and Dimitri Payet (West Ham) in a three-man front line, not to mention Patrice Evra (Juventus), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal) and Bacary Sagna (Manchester City) in defence and Hugo Lloris (Tottenham) between the sticks.

France are top-priced 7/2 to lift the European Championship trophy, which may seem a little skinny, but they should qualify with ease from Group A, which features Albania, Romania and Switzerland. If they win the group, they’ll face the third placed team from Group C, Group D or Group E in the last 16 before facing the winner of the match between the runners-up in Group B and runners-up in Group F in the quarter-finals. In other words, it’ll be the semi-finals before they face any of the other fancied teams, by which time 7/2 could start to look rather generous.

Selection: France to win Euro 2016 (7/2 with Paddy Power)

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