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How the pandemic has helped France's chances of winning Euro 2021

Sports Mole takes an in-depth look at why the postponement of Euro 2020 could benefit France's hopes of winning the tournament.

July 12 - the peak of summer and the peak of the footballing season combine for a momentous occasion at Wembley Stadium.

At the home of football, 90,000 fans would have gathered in hope and anticipation with millions more watching worldwide as two nations face off in the final of the 2020 European Championship.

But because of the extent of the coronavirus pandemic, the Euros were eventually postponed until 2021.

It is impossible to know now which teams would have made it to the final stages of the competition, though that won't stop the football fanatics in us from contemplating and imagining.

The French national team, or Les Bleus, would certainly have been one of, if not the favourites, having won the previous World Cup in 2018 and been the unlucky finalists in the 2016 Euros.

Kylian Mbappe celebrates scoring his side's fourth during the World Cup final between France and Croatia on July 15, 2018© Reuters

Players like Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and the prodigious Kylian Mbappe are now global icons with the credentials to back up such predictions.

Factoring in the never-ending production line of impressive talent coming out of French academies and the unique squad chemistry displayed in 2018, it becomes clear why many people backed Didier Deschamps's men to claim another international trophy.

Yet big names do not necessarily equate to success and two years in international football is plenty of time for team chemistry to deteriorate. Just ask the Spanish squad about their underwhelming 2014 World Cup campaign, having won the Euros in convincing fashion just two years earlier.

Since France's dominance in Russia, their already-impressive talent-pool has expanded to the point that Deschamps could field several high-calibre starting elevens using different players.

Is it conceivable that such a fearsome team would not have been victorious if the Euros had gone ahead as planned?

France's Antoine Griezmann celebrates qualifying for the Euro 2020 finals with team mates on November 17, 2019© Reuters

Looking at results in friendlies, Euro qualifiers and the nascent UEFA Nations League would suggest that Les Bleus maintained an impressive run leading up to Euro 2020.

Since the World Cup, they have drawn three and lost only two in 17 matches across the different formats, demonstrating no obvious signs of a decline.

Still, France's last match was in November of 2019 and several things have transpired this season which surely would have caused Deschamps some concern prior to the tournament's postponement.

Of Deschamps' regular starting 11 two years ago, veterans Hugo Lloris, Blaise Matuidi and Olivier Giroud are all on the wrong side of 30 and had shown signs of being past their best.

The Tottenham Hotspur goalkeeper would almost certainly have been picked to start for France had the tournament gone ahead, despite being plagued with a horrific elbow dislocation that at one point seemed career-ending, followed by a groin problem later in March.

Tottenham Hotspur's Hugo Lloris pictured on March 10, 2020© Reuters

Lloris has since appeared reinvigorated post-lockdown. However, his stop-start game time prior to Project Restart coupled with his innate tendency to concede howlers in the big moments means that France's captain surely would have inspired less confidence in his back-line than two years ago.

Giroud had likewise struggled for minutes this season, failing to carve out a spot in Frank Lampard's fresh-faced Chelsea side in favour of Tammy Abraham.

He now looks to have taken back the starting striker role and recently signed a new contract, though the situation prior to the lockdown was very different.

The striker had scored only two league goals and unsuccessfully sought a move away in January to aid his chances of being picked for the upcoming international friendlies. He commented on his frustration: "I saw myself elsewhere after experiencing a complicated six months. I did everything I
could to leave Chelsea, but they did not want to let me go unless they could get a replacement."

Due to the lack of other available options with a proven track-record on the international stage, Deschamps likely would have been forced to start Giroud at the Euros, hoping that his fine international form in 2019 – six goals in 10 appearances – would continue.

France's Olivier Giroud celebrates scoring their second goal on November 14, 2019© Reuters

After all, Giroud's ability to link-up seamlessly with forwards Griezmann and Mbappe was a major theme throughout the World Cup, even if he had received an onslaught from the French media for not netting a single goal throughout the competition.

Fellow international Djibril Sidibe said of his importance: "I don't think France would have won the World Cup if Olivier Giroud had not been in the team with what he brought, defensively and offensively, in the support he provided, in his chemistry with Kylian and Antoine and above all because Olivier has the experience, he has been in the team for a long time."

Once an integral cog in France's build-up play, Giroud's return to action whilst struggling for fitness and confidence could have been detrimental to the side and left it lacking in attack compared to two years ago.

Even more ominous for Deschamps were the long-term injuries faced by several high-profile players within the national team setup during the 2019-20 season, namely talisman Pogba, Lucas Hernandez and Aymeric Laporte, who had set his sights on a starting role despite being uncapped.

Selection for the 23-man Euros squad in June would have meant these key players lacking in match sharpness having barely featured all season. Such disadvantages can often be costly when coming up against top opposition in the crucial stages of an international tournament.

Kylian Mbappe celebrates scoring France's first goal against Netherlands with Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann on September 9, 2018© Reuters

When fit, Pogba especially possesses the type of quality that can elevate a team and provide moments of magic, as displayed in his standout performance against Argentina in the World Cup quarter-finals.

His positive influence can be exemplified by 41% of his total passes throughout the competition having been forward ones, whilst also racking up nine key passes and a goal in the process.

Unless Deschamps was planning to field an unfit Pogba, leaving him out of the starting lineup would have resulted in a creative deficit and relying on Nabil Fekir or Corentin Tolisso instead. Both are capable but simply not of the same stature.

It is true that France's remarkable squad depth makes Les Bleus one of the only teams where such circumstances wouldn't have meant certain failure.

Having elite level defenders in Samuel Umtiti and Benjamin Mendy as backups is undoubtedly a privilege. Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman's impressive campaigns would have meant Deschamps still had firepower at his disposal too, despite not being his primary options.

Kingsley Coman celebrates scoring for France on September 7, 2019© Reuters

Looking towards the country's prospects for the Euros in 2021, football's unpredictable and cruel nature means that there is no guarantee that France will not face another long injury list in a year's time.

Crucially though, there are several important things to be optimistic about now that the tournament has been postponed.

Giroud, Pogba, Laporte and LLoris returning to form since the restart is positive news, but the biggest benefit of the delay is that it allows France another year of preparation at a pivotal point in the squad's cycle.

One more season of football gives Deschamps the opportunity to phase out the team's loyal long-time servants and integrate some outstanding talent.

The likes of Dayot Upamecano, William Saliba, Marcus Thuram and Houssem Aouar all have world-class potential and have enjoyed stellar starts to their respective careers.

Lyon's Houssem Aouar pictured in February 2020© Reuters

Next season presents a great opportunity for them and it is Deschamps' responsibility to provide playing opportunities in the friendlies and Nations League fixtures this autumn.

Christian Karembeu, a former French international who won the Euros and World Cup alongside Deschamps as a player, believes that the manager is more than capable of carrying out the task: "Didier Deschamps did the double, so he's going to try to get across to his young players what he managed to achieve.

"We know it's a quality squad, with Mbappe, Pogba and so many others. They can do it and go very far once again because they're so young. They can be part of many generations of players and may even play in four or five World Cups."

France should be motivated by the fact that they are currently only the bookies' third favourites to win the Euros at 7/1. Making it out of their group – which includes Germany and Portugal – alone is a difficult task in itself.

France will be up against serious opposition straight away. Germany's manager Joachim Low has used the last two years to rebuild with another golden-generation now waiting to leave their mark, whilst Portugal has won two of its last three major international tournaments.

An unprecedented opportunity has been presented to Les Bleus. With solid preparation and a bit of luck, truly talented players can create a dynasty by emulating their manager's own successive achievements in 1998 and 2000.

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