Unlike England, Spain, Italy, Germany, the Netherlands and Denmark, all of whom have the advantage of playing their group matches at home, France must conduct their whole Euro campaign on foreign ground, sometimes on their opponents’ turf. They start with a doozy – against Germany in Munich on Tuesday – and on Saturday face Hungary in Budapest, where they will conclude their group on 23 June against Portugal, who, along with Belgium, are the only other major power to have been assigned such a hostile itinerary.
Perhaps this can be seen as a kind of handicap system, an effort to even out the competition by placing extra demands on the favourites. Let there be no doubt: the world champions are the team to beat. France are stronger than when they won the World Cup three years ago, even if eight of the players who started the 2018 final probably remain first-choice picks.
The big addition since then is Karim Benzema, whose return from international exile adds a new, potentially thrilling dimension to France’s strikeforce. It may well be that Didier Deschamps ends up emulating as a manager what he did as a player, winning the Euros with pizzazz on the back of a solid World Cup triumph and this France team probably needs that extra firepower to offset relative defensive fragility.
Deschamps’s decision to recall Benzema after a highly visible and often bitter absence of nearly six years was surprising for a manager who has always been wary of upsetting the mood in the camp even if he has also reintegrated players such as Adrien Rabiot after more minor beefs. There is little indication Benzema has soured relations among the squad, although Olivier Giroud’s curious grumbling about Kylian Mbappé not passing to him often enough during last week’s friendly win over Bulgaria hinted at the difficulties of preserving harmony between big egos.
French in-fighting may well represent others countries’ best hope of beating them but interpreting Giroud’s quibble, and Mbappé gentle rebuke, as evidence of impending warfare is probably a stretch. Mostly, Benzema’s return raised optimism of France’s chances.
The Real Madrid striker showed in his first match back – the 3-0 friendly win over Wales this month – that his intelligence and skill help to make the attack a very different proposition to when Giroud is leading the line (though the Chelsea player remains a valuable option). With Kingsley Coman, Marcus Thuram and Ousmane Dembélé offering even more speed and dribbling skills and Wissam Ben Yedder nifty in tight spaces and deadly in front of goal, France can attack in any number of ways. The option of making five substitutions makes them even bigger favourites.
What Benzema should bring is more reliabilityin terms of finishing and more unpredictability thanks to his movement. His understanding with Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann was evident in the trio’s first match together, when they were all flicks, feints and one-touch passes as they interchanged positions as they pleased. This exciting trinity can put on a show while setting a concentration test that even the very best defences could struggle to endure, especially when the France full-backs can raid forward to provide the width. Everton’s Lucas Digne will probably not start but his crossing prowess makes him a dangerous back-up.
Corentin Tolisso, or maybe Rabiot, is likely to fill the role performed by Blaise Matuidi at the World Cup, with Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kanté the other midfielders behind Griezmann at the tip of the diamond.
That, at least, is one compelling permutation, but Deschamps has a variety of options and can change in the course of games and between matches. In Euro 2016, when France finished runners-up, and at the 2018 World Cup, France’s starting formation evolved in the course of the tournaments. Kanté’s sheer dynamism can help balance most systems.
France’s other midfielders, however, can sometimes lapse into sloppiness and on those rare occasions opponents can exploit a suspect defence. Raphaël Varane needs a steadfast partner in central defence; Samuel Umtiti was exactly that in 2018, since when Presnel Kimpembe has stepped into the role impressively – but he goes into the Euros on the back of a wayward end to the season with Paris Saint-Germain. Clément Lenglet and Kurt Zouma are hardly more inspiring, while Jules Koundé, who can also play at right-back, looks classy but lacks experience. That is why it is so curious that Deschamps ignored Aymeric Laporte to the extent that the Manchester City centre-back declared for Spain instead.
The other area where France look vulnerable is in goal. Hugo Lloris makes an increasing number of mistakes but it would be a shock if Deschamps were to drop the captain. Mike Maignan, who has just joined Milan after winning Ligue 1 with Lille, has enjoyed a much better club season than the Spurs keeper but has never made a competitive international appearance. Lloris, then, is likely to remain No 1 for at least one more tournament. He could end up lifting another trophy. Or dropping another clanger.