Les Espoirs and Euro Qualifying – a short history
It’s the international break, and not just for the seniors – the Under-21s are also in action, as their qualifying campaign for the 2019 Euros in Italy and San Marino kicks off. Tuesday night sees their competitive opener against Kazakhstan, who for some reason started qualifying back in March – before the 2017 tournament was played – with a 2-1 win away in Luxembourg.
Group 9 pits France against Bulgaria, Kazakhstan, Luxembourg, Montenegro and Slovenia, as les Espoirs try to make it to the final tournament for the first time since 2006. Despite consistently having a squad that makes you go ooh, promising, France have consistently stuffed up the qualifying process over the past six iterations, most frequently at the play-off stage after the initial qualifying group.
Of these set-backs, there was ‘the Norway incident’ in the run-up to the 2013 tournament, when they won 1-0 at home before losing 5-3 in the return leg, those matches sandwiching arguably the most famous taxi ride in French football history as Yann Mvila, Chris Mavinga, Wissam Ben Yedder, Antoine Griezmann and M’Baye Niang landed themselves lengthy bans from the FFF after heading to a nightclub in Paris.
Then, there was ‘the Sweden thing’ as their attempts to get to the 2015 tournament fell apart after a 2-0 home win was followed by a 4-1 defeat in the away leg, which featured Layvin Kurzawa being a prick and Sweden’s John Guidetti not letting him forget it.
In both those campaigns, France won the original qualifying group, so when the rules changed for the 2017 tournament, giving automatic qualification to the group-winners, things looked promising for the jinx to be over-turned. France promptly came second in the group after losing to Iceland and Ukraine (to a 92nd minute winner), and with only the four best second-placed teams getting a play-off spot, didn’t even manage to make it that far.
After those chaotic failures overseen by Erick Mombaerts, Willy Sagnol, and Pierre Mankowski, ex-Lorient boss Sylvain Ripoll took charge in May this year seeking to be the first manager since Rene Girard to get les Espoirs to an actual tournament. He started with pleasing friendly wins over Albania and Cameroon in June, but it wouldn’t be France without something frustrating happening – Theo Hernandez (since acquired by Real Madrid) failed to answer his call-up … as he was on holiday in Marbella.
Possibly Ripoll has invested in a series of large motivational posters saying « mais putain, concentrez-vous! » to put up around Clairefontaine. And is maybe being a little passive aggressive in his conversations with Theo’s older brother Lucas.
Anyway. His third match in charge was Friday’s friendly against Chile, which saw Amine Harit open the scoring before an (offside) equaliser for the visitors. Substitute Malang Sarr was stretchered off late on after being knocked out by the Chilean goalkeeper challenging for a freekick, in a match that Ripoll used to get as many players as possible some game-time before the first qualifying match.
The danger here, of course, is that looking at this squad, you go… ooh, promising. A lot of them featured in this year’s Le50 – and several in previous editions as well – and there has also been a deal of moving around this summer, so let’s have a look at the group for this campaign.
Goalkeepers – Alban Lafont (Toulouse), Bingourou Kamara (Strasbourg), Paul Bernardoni (Clermont)
Lafont is well-known as being the guy who got himself a Ligue 1 starting berth at an absurdly young age, and has to be the first pick, but he has some able deputies, particularly Kamara, who played the match against Chile.
He moved from Tours to Strasbourg this summer, and playing in goal for a newly-promoted side is a tall order for anyone, let alone a 20-year-old. Things haven’t gone swimmingly for him so far with seven conceded in four games, but he kept a clean sheet in that 3-0 win over Lille, and was also impressive in the 1-1 draw away at Montpellier.
Defenders – Kelvin Amian Adou (Toulouse), Mouctar Diakhaby (OL), Abdou Diallo (Mainz), Lucas Hernandez (Atletico Madrid), Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart), Ronael Pierre-Gabriel (Saint-Etienne), Malang Sarr (Nice) replaced by Olivier Boscagli (Nimes)
Centre-back is a position where France often seems to have a wealth of young talent available, and this squad is no exception – Sarr was a key part of the Nice defence that did so well early stages last season, and Diakhaby has bags of potential if so far little used by Lyon.
Sarr’s injury in the Chile game led to Boscagli – loaned to Nimes from Nice – getting a replacement call-up; while he doesn’t have the same experience, he is also a very promising player. Add to that ‘RPG’, who has already picked up some very good notes and proved himself capable of playing at both fullback positions, and this looks a good group. Sarr’s absence will weaken them, but they should still have sufficient quality to hold out against Kazakhstan.
Midfielders – Marcus Coco (Guingamp), Adama Diakhaby (Monaco), Angelo Fulgini (Angers), Amine Harit (Schalke), Tanguy Ndombele (OL), Olivier Ntcham (Celtic), Lucas Tousart (OL)
More movement in midfield, as Harit moved from Nantes to Schalke, Fulgini has made the step up to Ligue 1 with his move to Angers from Valenciennes, Ndombele – who stepped in for the unavailable Maxime Lopez of OM – has moved to Lyon from Amiens, and Ntcham is already bedding in at Celtic after two seasons on loan at Genoa.
Finally, Diakhaby – here listed as a midfielder but who can play in several attacking positions – has already started up front for Monaco and scored his debut goal in the 6-1 hammering of OM, after bagging five goals for Rennes last season. While Lopez will be a loss, with non-movers Coco and Tousart big FFW favourites, again, this group looks well-set to be both flexible and effective.
Attackers – Jonathan Bamba (Saint-Etienne), Lys Mousset (Bournemouth), Allan Saint-Maximin (Nice), Jean-Kevin Augustin (Leipzig) replaced by Martin Terrier (Strasbourg)
And yet more movement for the frontmen of this squad, as Augustin left PSG – under the circumstances, understandable – this summer, and Saint-Maximin took the short hop from Monaco to Nice after last season’s loan at Bastia, where he may only have scored three goals, but busted all sorts of stats for dribbles and take-ons in an extremely trying season. Bamba is back at his parent club after loans at Sint-Truiden (Belgium) and Angers last term where he scored three for each club, and already has two – against Nice and Amiens – for ASSE. Bournemouth’s Mousset has been making only sporadic / brief appearances in the Premiership, but has been a stalwart for the French youth teams and got a brace in the Albania game in June.
Things took a slight turn for the worse after Augustin was dropped from the group for ‘mauvais comportement’ – apparently a half-time bust-up with Ripoll during the Chile match, either because of or leading to Mousset replacing him for the second half, so left-winger Martin Terrier (loaned from Lille to Strasbourg) has come in as his replacement. Yesterday also saw Saint-Maximin declared forfait with a muscle injury, so Bamba looks like the main man for tonight’s game.
With quality in every position and a degree of depth, this France team again looks dangerous. There are some absences, both from injury and, well, other things, as well as the players still eligible for this but already sent up to the senior side – but the group looks solid and effective, with a good amount of creativity in midfield.
Which – particularly after the senior’s woeful performance in the goalless draw against Luxembourg on Sunday – unfortunately means that French football watchers are now wondering….well, what will go wrong this time? Or, given the Augustin situation, what else?