Host French clear fa­vorites in weak Group A

Jerusalem Post - - SPORTS - By MAR­TYN HER­MAN

With the ex­panded 24-team Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship set to kick off ton Friday in France, we will present a group-by-group break­down of the teams this week, be­gin­ning with Group A.

FRANCE

Rather like 1998 World Cup-win­ning coach Aime Jac­quet, Di­dier Deschamps is us­ing a prag­matic, all-about-the-team ap­proach to Euro 2016 as host France looks to cap­ture its first ma­jor ti­tle since Euro 2000.

Deschamps, who cap­tained Les Bleus in 1998 and 2000, left out Karim Ben­zema af­ter the Real Madrid striker was em­broiled in an al­leged black­mail scan­dal and did not even con­sider Franck Ribery af­ter the Bay­ern Mu­nich for­ward hinted he could be will­ing to come back.

De­fender Ma­madou Sakho was not con­sid­ered, ei­ther, as Deschamps would not risk los­ing the Liver­pool player to a sus­pen­sion af­ter he was pro­vi­sion­ally banned for fail­ing a dope test.

France will kick off the month­long tour­na­ment on Friday with its Group A opener against Ro­ma­nia be­fore tak­ing on Al­ba­nia and Switzer­land.

Even with­out Ben­zema, France is well-equipped up front with Olivier Giroud, Dim­itri Payet, An­toine Griez­mann, An­dre-Pierre Gignac and An­thony Mar­tial, as well as Bay­ern Mu­nich prodigy Kings­ley Co­man.

While France built its 1998 World Cup suc­cess on a rock-solid de­fense, no­tably be­cause it was lack­ing fire­power at the other end, the cur­rent squad has a ten­dency to be shaky at the back.

SWITZER­LAND

Switzer­land’s young, mul­ti­cul­tural team is of­ten re­garded as a suc­cess story both in sport­ing and po­lit­i­cal terms, yet a cloud has de­scended over it as it heads into the Euros.

The future cer­tainly looked bright for Switzer­land two years ago when it beat Ecuador and Hon­duras at the World Cup and took Ar­gentina to within a minute of a penalty shootout.

How­ever, the Swiss seem to have lost their way since vet­eran coach Ottmar Hitzfeld re­tired and was re­placed by Vladimir Petkovic.

The club form of many play­ers, a peren­nial prob­lem, has also dipped.

Cap­tain Gokhan In­ler was un­able to force his way into the Le­ices­ter City team this sea­son fol­low­ing his move from Napoli, while the form of Switzer­land’s for­wards, who all play in the Bun­desliga, is an­other worry with Haris Se­fer­ovic and Ad­mir Mehmedi both strug­gling for goals and Josip Dr­mic likely to miss the tour­na­ment through in­jury.

RO­MA­NIA

With a team ethic built on dis­ci­pline plus a strong de­fense, Ro­ma­nia bears more than a pass­ing re­sem­blance to the Greece team which sprang out of nowhere to win Euro 2004.

While few ob­servers ex­pect Anghel Ior­danescu’s side to em­u­late that suc­cess, his play­ers’ abil­ity to pre­vent other teams scor­ing en­sures they will be one of the most dif­fi­cult sides to break down in France.

Un­de­feated in 15 matches since June 2014, Ro­ma­nia kept clean sheets in 12 of those games in­clud­ing a goal­less friendly against Spain last March.

So Group A ri­val France, Al­ba­nia and Switzer­land knows that even scor­ing against Ro­ma­nia will be an achieve­ment when the ac­tion kicks off this week.

The prob­lem for Ro­ma­nia will be at the other end and a qual­i­fy­ing record of 11 goals from 10 matches – in­clud­ing a record goal drought of 428 min­utes – sug­gests its games will be short on goal­mouth thrills.

AL­BA­NIA

Al­ba­nia has al­ready achieved its dream by sim­ply qual­i­fy­ing for its first ma­jor tour­na­ment, and it hopes that the lack of psy­cho­log­i­cal pres­sure in France might even take it be­yond the group stage.

Seem­ingly the eter­nal also-ran, Al­ba­nia had never pre­vi­ously reached the World Cup or Euro­pean Cham­pi­onship and the 3-0 win over Ar­me­nia that clinched its place in Euro 2016 sparked wild scenes at home and among thou­sands of Al­ba­ni­ans abroad.

Al­ba­nia will play host France, Ro­ma­nia and Switzer­land and, out­gunned by ri­vals with more experience and international stars, no-one is set­ting their sights ab­surdly high.

All the same, Ital­ian coach Gianni De Bi­asi and soc­cer fed­er­a­tion chief Ar­mando Duka har­bor hopes of mak­ing it through the group stage.

In his four years as coach, De Bi­asi has tried var­i­ous play­ers to find the per­fect com­bi­na­tion, but though Al­ba­nia plays a strong de­fen­sive game its at­tack lacks punch.

With those lim­i­ta­tions in mind, Astrit Hafizi, who coached the side from 1996 to 1999, of­fered a more re­al­is­tic ap­praisal of prospects.

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