France will take to the field for Thursday’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 on Tuesday vice-captain Raphael Varane insisted the squad supports one another.
“We are together when things are going well as well as when things are not going so well,” Manchester United defender Varane told reporters.
“We take on things together, we don’t leave anyone behind. That’s our philosophy, and that’s not going to change.”
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.”
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.”