Problem with Youth: Will France Under-21s Blow it Again?
With just one qualifying game left, we are close to once again seeing the French under-21s failing to live up to their potential. Needing other results to go their way on Tuesday evening, France are staring down the barrel of missing out on a place at the European Championships next summer; a tournament they have not qualified for since 2006.
On paper, the qualifying group seemed fairly straightforward for the talented French youngsters. Iceland, Macedonia, Scotland, Ukraine and Northern Ireland should have presented little trouble for France to finally make it next summer’s showpiece tournament in Poland. Sadly, as has been the case for the last decade, the plan for a smooth run has not materialised.
Qualification started off in pretty horrendous fashion with goalkeeper Paul Nardi sent off less than 10 minutes into the opening game against Iceland. A man down for more than 80 minutes, France slipped to a 3-2 defeat despite goals from Aymeric Laporte and a last gasp effort from Grejohn Kyei. A much improved French side won their next game, away to Scotland, with Corentin Tolisso adding to a Scottish own goal. That was quickly followed up with a comfortable 2-0 victory over Ukraine in Strasbourg thanks to strikes from Adrien Rabiot and Thomas Lemar.
A late goal from on-loan Bastia forward Enzo Crivelli proved to be enough to give France the points against Northern Ireland in Guingamp. Disappointing performances against Macedonia followed; a 2-2 draw in Skopje represented a point saved for the French in reality, coming back from two goals down, and after seeing Marseille defender Stephane Sparagna sent off, goals from Sebastien Haller and Georges-Kevin Nkoudou saving the day. In the return fixture, the French laboured to another draw, relying on a Macedonian own goal to gift them a point. Sandwiched between those two draws was a much-needed win over Scotland in Angers thanks to two goals from Haller.
The biggest blow to French hopes, however, came in early September, in a trip to Ukraine. Despite dominating their hosts, a combination of wasteful finishing, just one shot on target from 14, and an error from debutant Issa Diop, resulted in an injury-time winner from Ukraine. Those dropped points could well come back to haunt the French. Facing a must-win game against group leaders Iceland, France put behind the disappointment of the Ukraine defeat with an assured 2-0 win with both goals coming from Corentin Tolisso.
Coming into Tuesday evening, therefore, there is a three-horse race for the top spot to secure automatic qualification. Iceland lead the way on goal difference from Macedonia and they finish with games against Ukraine at home and a trip to Scotland respectively. Neither of those games are guaranteed wins for the top two sides but with their opponents out of the qualifying picture, it looks grim for the French.
France, a point behind the leaders, finish with a trip to Belfast to face the Northern Irish in a game they are expected to win. They go into the game off the back of a comfortable friendly 5-1 win over Georgia. The squad has seen a long list of drop-outs and un-selectable players, as Aymeric Laporte and Presnel Kimpembe have been called up to the senior side. Benjamin Mendy, Marcus Coco, Maxwel Cornet and Remi Walter have succumbed to injuries. On the plus side, in the likes of Rabiot, Tolisso, Ousmane Dembele, Moussa Dembele and Jean-Kevin Augustin, les Espoirs have players at the top of their game.
Should France finish second in the group, their results against first, third, fourth and fifth will be taken into account. The four second-placed teams with the best results from these matches will go into a play-off round. If France do finish second, they will need a big win on Tuesday with goal difference likely to play an important factor.
With a squad blessed with such talent, it seems ludicrous that they should be in this position but as a unit they have struggled to blend their individual talents on too many occasions. French Football Federation President Noël le Graët summed it up well when stating, “the facts are simple, there are players but no team”. If this team is to succeed, this has to be put right and is possibly something to be examined in a follow-up piece. As far as this tournament qualification goes though, chances are it will be too little, too late.