As we complete the first lap of the European Championships, the big guns are flexing their muscles. Germany were cool and effective against Ukraine. Italy were shrewd and resilient against Belgium. Spain made their usual mistake of believing that 500 completed passes could be exchanged for a goal voucher, but remembered the rules just in time to beat the Czech Republic.
If hosts France are to emerge from the contenders and lift the trophy, they’re going to have to lift their game first. They can’t always rely on Dimitri Payet to save them with a heroic performance punctuated by a wonder goal. When they meet Albania in Marseille on Wednesday night, they need to be better.
It was not entirely surprising that France were, in the words of manager Didier Deschamps, far from perfect on Friday night. This is a nation still in a state of emergency, a status that has existed since the night of the Paris attacks last November and was extended in April to cover the European Championships and the Tour de France. There has been grave concern about the threat of a terrorist attack and great anxiety over the logistical difficulties of providing security to so many people in the most testing of circumstances.
You could feel the release of emotion in the stadium, even through the television, when the national anthem La Marseillaise was unleashed before kick-off on the tournament’s opening night. The resolve in the eyes of Patrice Evra, the defiance in the face of Deschamps, the way the fans were so energised that their voices jumped from the tracks of the anthem, their words roaring ahead of the music. This was France standing proudly on the barricades, daring its enemies to try their luck.
On the pitch, France played in fits and starts, dazzling in sporadic moments, underwhelming in longer patches. Romania very nearly took the lead in the first five minutes. Payet was magnificent, but too many other players fell short of expectations. But at least Romania proved good preparation for Albania. Both teams are built on a tight, compact defence, sitting deep and choosing to attack only when the circumstances are perfect. Once again, France will have to work hard to break down their opponents. And there are plenty of areas in which they can improve.
Forwards Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud will need to offer more up front against an Albania side that know how to defend and, given the way they rallied after Lorik Cana’s dismissal against Switzerland, doesn’t give up. Giroud is frequently criticised for being less than world class, but if he can impose himself on this game, he just have the last laugh. Gianni de Biasi’s side will sit deep, so Griezmann’s ability to break into space may prove redundant.
Giroud’s size and strength will be the key. But he’ll be up against a formidable centre-back, Mergim Mavraj, who plays his club football for Cologne. He is prone to mistakes (his unwise decision to let a long goal kick bounce was punished with a goal in Albania’s defeat to Austria in March), but at 6-foot-3, he’s large enough to neutralise Giroud’s height.
Paul Pogba is another who would to well to move up through the gears. A wonderful midfielder with an almost complete physical and technical skill set, he could have his defining career moment at this tournament. But that won’t happen with a performance as patchy as the one he gave against Albania. He can dominate the midfield, but only if he takes a breath and plays with more control.
When it comes to control, there are few players quite like N’golo Kante. His rise to prominence has been sustained, but it’s still hard to fathom. He appears to have limitless energy reserves. Indeed, you have to feel for Leicester City. Having uncovered such a talent at such a low price, they surely cannot hope to keep him at the King Power after this tournament. There is not a club in the world that couldn’t find a place for him in this form.
But bits and pieces of a team performance are not going to be enough to beat the likes of Germany and Spain. We saw in Lyon on Monday night what happens to a team made of unconnected individuals. Belgium were far less than the sum of their parts. We also saw the difference that intense tactical preparation and planning can make. Italy found a way to outperform expectations by working in unison with each other. France are more in the direction of Italy, and they certainly seem to have more spirit than Belgium, but they can lift their game further. They can play much better.
In Marseille, in front of nearly 70,000 fans, they’ll have the chance to beat Albania, qualify for the next round and put themselves in with a good chance of a first place finish, and thus a theoretically simpler passage to the final. But more than that, they’ll have a chance to tweak and tinker and to find their groove. This competition is only just warming up.