France will take to the field for today’s Nations League semi-final against Belgium in Turin with something to prove following their shock early exit from Euro 2020. World champions France were among the favourites to win the summer’s European Championship but failed to set the tournament alight despite having a squad packed with world-class talent.
Their elimination on penalties at the hands of Switzerland in the last 16 — after leading 3-1 with 15 minutes of normal time remaining — was a particular shock, and led to some fallout within the French camp.
On Tuesday sports daily L’Equipe published a lengthy interview with star forward Kylian Mbappe, whose missed spot-kick handed the Swiss a memorable win in one of the matches of the tournament. He said he would have liked “more support” following his shoot-out error.
“What shocked me, once again, was being called a monkey for a penalty,” Mbappe said. “That’s why I wanted support, not because I shot the penalty to the left and (Yann) Sommer saved it.”
Mbappe also said that he could have had more support from his teammates on the field right after missing the penalty, but coach Didier Deschamps that he wasn’t interested in any controversy surrounding Mbappe.
Coach Deschamps claimed he hadn’t even read the article, published two days before what should be Mbappe’s 50th cap for his national team, against Belgium in the Nations League semi-finals.
“I don’t know what he said, I didn’t read it and it doesn’t interest me,” Deschamps told reporters.
“I spoke to him and had a discussion with him, and that’s all that matters for me. What’s done is done, you can’t go back into the past.”
France go into the match on an unconvincing run of form, with the 2-0 World Cup qualifying win over Finland last month their first victory after a run of five draws. They will be missing midfield dynamo N’Golo Kante after he contracted Covid-19 in the run up to Chelsea’s 1-0 defeat at Juventus last week.
“We shouldn’t play down this competition, it’s replaced friendly fixtures which weren’t very popular,” said France coach Didier Deschamps. “We know we’re here with an aim and unlike other competitions we’re already in the semi-finals.”
France captain Hugo Lloris meanwhile said that it was time for France to put the Euro flop behind them and look ahead to today’s match in Turin. “It’s not a good idea to mix competitions. The Euro finished a few months ago and now we’re talking about the Nations League semi-final,” said Tottenham goalkeeper Lloris.
“Playing against a strong team like Belgium makes things better for us. And even though the Nations League is not as important as the World Cup or the Euro, it is a tournament which involves the best teams in Europe.”
Belgium too will be looking to bounce back from their Euro campaign on the turf of the team which knocked them out of the tournament in the quarter-finals. Roberto Martinez’s side may have gone one better than France in the summer but it was more disappointment for the team ranked number one in the world.
The Red Devils’ only major sporting honour is gold at the 1920 Olympics, which were held in Antwerp, and a golden generation of players has fallen short both at the Euro and the last World Cup, where they were eliminated by France in the semis.
“They have six or seven players with more than 100 caps, who have been there for a very long time,” said Deschamps. “It’s not for nothing that they’re ranked the best team in the world. They’re well organised, have young players who stand out but also a core of very experienced players which makes them one of the best teams in Europe and the world. It’s a very, very good generation of players which has not yet experienced the joy of winning a tournament.”
Belgium’s Thorgan Hazard has been ruled out due to an ankle injury, forcing them to make another change to their squad ahead match. Hazard has been struggling with an ankle injury for several weeks and was left behind after two days of treatment when Belgium flew to Italy on the eve of their semi-final against France.
The attacking wide player has been replaced by uncapped defender Arthur Theate. The 21-year-old Bologna centre back was chosen as Hazard’s replacement in the 24-man squad because Belgium also have concerns about the fitness of Jason Denayer, who is still trying to shrug of a muscle strain. Theate is expected to be on the bench today. Earlier this week, Belgium called up Thomas Foket to replace injured wing back Thomas Meunier.
Belgium’s Romelu Lukaku gestures during a training in Turin, Italy. (Reuters)
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