Mon, 26 Jul 2021

Reigning world champion and 2016 Euro finalist France make their hotly anticipated debut at the Euro 2021 tournament on Tuesday. Lining up against Kylian Mbappe and company are Germany, none too impressed by Les Bleus' status as favourites in the competition.

France's Euro 2021 opener has the makings of a baptism by fire. The French squad takes on Germany, formidable candidates in any football competition, on their home turf in Munich. Favourites France will need to keep their expectations in check, lest they bite off more than they can chew.

Facing Germany to kick off the tournament is a stark contrast to France's first matches at the 2018 World Cup, where Les Bleus opened against Australia, and at Euro 2016 against Romania, both sides of more modest football stature.

Brimming with confidence, Didier Deschamps's Bleus must accept their position as frontrunners in 2021. With Paris Saint-Germain prodigy Mbappe, Real Madrid's Karim Benzema, Barcelona's Antoine Griezmann and Chelsea's Olivier Giroud up front, France's attack - at least on paper - could be stratospheric. Same goes for the landscape at midfield featuring Manchester United's Paul Pogba and Chelsea's N'Golo Kante, fresh off his Man-of-the-match performance to win the Champions League last month.

"I don't want to run away from this status of 'favourite' that we share with other nations," coach Deschamps told the French sports daily L'Equipe. "But it guarantees us nothing. For some people, we've won without having stepped onto the pitch. That's far from being the case."

Europe itching to trip France up

Be it managers, pundits or players, Europe agrees that France is favoured to win this tournament. That means a target on their backs and the hefty weight of expectation that comes with it.

History tells us to be wary of the sort of pedestal on which Les Bleus find themselves. At the 2002 World Cup under coach Roger Lemerre, a glittering France side arrived in South Korea looking like it could do no wrong - the defending World Champions (1998) and reigning European champions (2000), after all, boasted a squad featuring Auxerre's Djibril Cisse, Arsenal's Thierry Henry and Juventus's David Trezeguet, the top scorers in the French, English and Italian leagues, respectively. But what happened next was pure, ignominious defeat: Elimination after the group stage, without a single goal scored.

Germany, meanwhile, under coach Joachim Löw, are siphoning extra motivation from their opening opponents' lofty status. Defender Antonio Rüdiger threw down the gauntlet during a press conference on Sunday. "Of course, they have good forwards. We have to be ready to win the one-on-one challenges," Rüdiger said at Germany's base in Bavaria. "We have to be a little dirty, not always be nice or try to play nice football. Against players like them, you have to throw down a marker," he said.

Is France its own worst enemy?

That being said, France could well be its own worst foe. With his volley of apparent criticism after France's 3-0 friendly victory over Bulgaria last week, striker Giroud muddled the image that has stuck to Les Bleus since the 2018 World Cup - that of a merry band of mates on a mission to bring the cup home.

"Sometimes you make a run and the balls just don't arrive," Giroud said. "I don't always pretend to make the right calls, but I have tried hard to provide solutions in the area," the Chelsea forward added, without explicitly targeting teammate Mbappe.

The remarks were roundly dissected in the football press, giddy that a psychodrama might shake up the team's habitually sleek public relations - and all the more for a flap that indirectly concerns striker Benzema. After his six-year exile from international play, Benzema's return to the France team is a de facto threat to Giroud's place as a starter.

>> Didier Deschamps, the 'water-carrier' who reigns over the French national team

Mbappe, for his part, said he was "affected" by Giroud's public comments, but nevertheless wants to turn the page. "We're here to represent France and the national team represents the most important thing," Mbappe told reporters at France's training centre on Sunday. "We have a big competition and these trivial things aren't going to disrupt our preparation. We have a common objective, that he and I are a part of," he added. "We are 48 hours from a super important match. I'm actually surprised that no one has asked me questions about the match ..."

France will also be battling against history: Since the group stages were introduced in 1980, Germany has never lost its opening match in 10 appearances. As it happens, neither has France, in eight appearances of its own. And in the event of a Les Bleus victory, surely all will be forgiven.

This article has been translated from the original in French.

Originally published on France24

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