Liechtenstein away and Georgia at home in the Euro 2024 qualifiers. Liechtenstein. Why did it have to be bloody Liechtenstein? You know what, it’d be the easiest thing in the world to take the France squad that won us the European International League this Summer and stick with the same 23 players, but where’s the fun in that? No, I’m shaking up the national side by picking players on form, apart from Loïc Badiashile, whose season with Fenerbahçe hasn’t kicked off yet but is sort of in by default.
It makes sense to start with our keepers actually, so joining the once capped Badiashile are 2 complete newbies to the international stage: Maxence Prévot, the Stoke keeper who’s cost Alban Lafont his place by ousting him from their club side, and Alphonse Areola, who’s not conceded for Swansea in his last 4 games. Leo Gauthier is left out as he and Sochaux have started the new season poorly, although I maintain that he’s the future of this team.
Goalkeepers: Loïc Badiashile (Fenerbahçe), Maxence Prévot (Stoke City), Alphonse Areola (Swansea City)
I’ve lamented the lack of available right backs at times and with Sebastien Corchia not having stepped onto the pitch for Stoke yet, he’s dropped. Corentin Tolisso can do a job on the right side of defence, but our main man is still his Monaco teammate Djibril Sidibé. The only other change is PSG’s Lucas, who’s left out in favour of the fit again Aymeric Laporte.
Defenders: Djibril Sidibé, Corentin Tolisso (Both AS Monaco), Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid), Dayot Upamecano (FC Porto), Aymeric Laporte (Chelsea), Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), Lucas Digne (Manchester City), Benjamin Mendy (Atlético Madrid)
I’m excited about the midfield changes. I’ve already mentioned Lamine Fomba and Abdoulaye Sissako’s inclusions. They replace Adrien Rabiot, who’s one of the players that’s started in pretty poor form, and Florian Thauvin, who… The less said about him the better really. Seeing as I’m including Tolisso as a defender, I’ve also got space for another midfielder in the squad. It’s another new face on the International stage too: OGC Nice’s box to boxer Wylan Cyprien. Without a doubt the biggest absentee from this squad is Antoine Griezmann though. My reason for not calling him up is that he too has started the season poorly for Atléti, but the more I think about it, the more I feel like at 32 years old, he could struggle to win back his place if one of our younger players can prove they deserve it more. I would give an opportunity to Anthony Martial as I want him to prove my initial assessment of his skills wrong, but he’s picked up some serious ligament damage and will miss 6-7 months, so instead I make the fairly cynical move of calling up Theo Hernández, the left back or left winger that I want to lock in as French before Spain call him up for another match.
Midfielders: Wylan Cyprien (OGC Nice), Abdoulaye Sissako, Lamine Fomba (Both AJ Auxerre), Tiémoué Bakayoko, Theo Hernández (Both AS Monaco), Francis Coquelin (AC Milan), Kingsley Coman, Paul Pogba (Both Manchester United), Thomas Lemar (Manchester City)
With Griezmann out, I’m thinking of trying Kylien Mbappé out as the lone striker. He loves to play off the wings but I reckon he could really tie everything together if given the central role. Neal Maupay is left out through form and is replaced by Moussa Dembélé, who should have been with us in the Summer and definitely deserves his chance now after scoring 4 times in his first 4 games of the season, putting him in the same bracket as top quality players like big Phil Foden.
Strikers: Kylien Mbappé (AS Monaco), Moussa Dembélé (Espanyol), Hervin Ongenda (Standard Liège)
Antoine Griezmann’s not happy to be dropped, which is predictable enough. I give him a ring though and he eventually concedes that his early season form hasn’t been good enough. As I say, his age is really counting against him so he’ll need to up his game for Atléti to get back into the squad.
It’s good to be back at the Rheinpark but I’m not entirely sure why. It’s not as if I have many happy memories of this place, but I get a twinge of nostalgia all the same. I suppose it’s because all those thrashings as Liechtenstein head coach paved the way for my current position. I see a lot of familiar faces and shake a lot of hands as we make our way off the bus and through the stadium to the visitors’ changing rooms, which are absolutely spotless and not like I remember at all. I even suspect that they’ve been recently painted. It seems Liechtenstein have pulled out all the stops in anticipation of hosting the world champions.
I really am torn. I don’t want to thrash Liechtenstein. I don’t want to make Mario Frick feel that empty hopelessness that comes after pretty much every match in that job. On the other hand though, I want France to rack up a cricket score. I want all those players that are yet to convince me of their merit to play on the biggest stage to put on an absolute clinic and force me to pick them again. We will of course be playing Project: Renaissance and are without only Francis Coquelin, who’s suspended after picking up a yellow card against Portugal. Areola will make his debut in net, my first choice back 4 of Sidibé, Varane, Laporte and Digne are back together, Cyprien gets a debut alongside Bakayoko in midfield, while Lemar, Pogba and Mbappé play behind Dembélé.
Oh dear. Oh dear, oh dear, oh dear. I look over to Frick in the opposite dugout and give him a weak, apologetic smile, which he reciprocates and shrugs. We’ve taken the lead after just 40 seconds. We win a corner straight away and Lemar swings it into the box. Lorenzo Lo Russo, the hosts’ preferred goalkeeper nowadays, comes out and flaps at the ball while Paul Pogba rises high above him and nods it into the net. Oh dear.
France go close to a 2nd in the 7th minute when Lemar dribbles in from the right and unleashes a powerful shot, but the ball grazes the far post as it flies wide. 10 minutes later however we do double our advantage. Wylan Cyprien gathers the ball on the right hand side and whips a cross to the far post, where Mbappé arrives to head it home. It is at least a nice change not to be on the receiving end of one of those after Auxerre’s recent pasting against Monaco.
We win the ball from the dejected Liechtensteiner team straight from kick off and venture forwards again, this time with Cyprien crashing a shot against the bar from 25 yards. 7 minutes or so later it’s 3 though. Another corner is swung in by Thomas Lemar, Pogba brings the ball down and plays it short to Bakayoko, who plays a one-two with Cyprien before placing it into the bottom corner.
With 10 minutes to go before the break, a Lemar free kick arrows straight into the top corner of Lo Russo’s net, further compounding the hosts’ misery. I’m strangely relieved when the whistle is blown at 4-0.
A half time double substitution sees Abdoulaye Sissako and Lamine Fomba make their debuts for the national side, replacing goal scorers Bakayoko and Pogba. I know that I shouldn’t be too proud to see these lads don the French shirt as it’s me who’s given them the chance. But I am proud. They’ve fought for this, they’ve climbed from the murky depths of Ligue 2 for this and they bloody well deserve it. Go on lads.
A few minutes after the restart, Moussa Dembélé receives the ball from Fomba and chips a pass into the box for Lemar, who nonchalantly slots in our 5th goal. Liechtenstein are determined not to roll over though. Mario Frick must have said something pretty inspiring at the break because straight after kick off, Brunner gets down the right wing and crosses in for striker Yanick Frick, who volleys it on the turn but can only rattle the post.
On the hour mark, Mbappé turns inside from the left and hits a beautiful diagonal ball ahead of Lemar, who takes it into the box looking for his hat trick, but shoots straight at Lo Russo. The keeper holds onto the ball and the home fans celebrate like they’ve scored a goal. It makes me smile, I’ve got to say. I suppose football’s a completely different game for countries like Liechtenstein where expectations are so low, so they just enjoy it as best they can. It certainly didn’t feel that way for me though.
A minute later it’s the away fans’ turn to cheer as a new Frenchman is born. Theo Hernández takes to the pitch replacing Kylien Mbappé. I’m pleased we’ve managed to wrestle him away from Spain and I’m sure that over the next few years he’ll take over as France’s starting left back. Not even a minute after the substitution, France are on the attack again too. Sidibé throws the ball in from the right, Lemar turns on the edge of the box and lays it off for… SISSAKO!
I sprint down the touchline to meet Abdoulaye Sissako as the away fans cheer from somewhere behind me. He’s scored on his pissing debut! Absolutely hammered it into the bottom corner from 20 yards! Fomba and the rest of the French team run over to mob Abdoulaye as I wrap an arm around the midfielder’s shoulders. Let the media say what they want about whether his inclusion is deserved, the lad’s got a 1 in 1 scoring record for the national side. Not even that dickhead Peter Crouch can compete with that.
The celebrations die down and the game starts to show signs of fizzling out as we get closer to full time. With 10 minutes to go though, Marcel Büchel plays a clever through ball for substitute Guillaume Khous, who rolls the ball in at Areola’s near post. The Liechtenstein fans are absolutely beside themselves with glee, as are the players and even Mario Frick, who dances away in his technical area. I know full well how precious goals are for the Liechtenstein national side no matter who they’re against, never mind against France. I smile again.
Khous looks nothing like the player I remember and actually could have a hat trick by the time the final whistle blows, first receiving a pass from Wenaweser and smacking the ball first time into the side netting and then being released by Kleber and forcing a good save from Areola in the dying minutes.
Eventually though the ref calls time in a buoyant Rheinpark Stadion. We’ve got a good win, Liechtenstein have something to celebrate and the debutants have all impressed me. I think everyone’s going away pretty happy today.
We head back to France after the match to prepare for Monday’s match against Georgia at Bordeaux’s Matmut Atlantique. At the minute there’s a 3-way tie for 1st place in our Euro 24 qualifying group between us, Georgia and Albania. We’re all on 9 points, but with the caveat that we’ve played 3 matches, Albania have played 5 and Georgia 4. A win today would take us 3 points clear with a game in hand.
I’m making a couple of changes to the lineup because we’ve got a few tired players and I see no reason to risk their fitness when we have such great depth. Varane, Laporte, Cyprien and Dembélé all drop out to be replaced by Upamecano, Umtiti, Sissako, who makes his full debut and Coman, who’ll be one of our wing-swapping wide players with Lemar while Mbappé starts up top.
We don’t start quite as quickly as we did in the last match, but in the 27th minute we find the breakthrough goal and it’s the same one I’ve seen this France side score time and time again. Coman chips the ball down the right for Sidibé, Sidibé half volleys a cross into the box and Mbappé nods it in. 1-0.
Straight from kick off we win the ball and come forward again though. This time Coman plays it inside for Pogba, who pokes a clever pass through for Mbappé, who wriggles into space from between the 2 Georgian centre backs and blasts in our 2nd. Call it the intuition of a fairly experienced manager, but I have a hunch that Kylien enjoys playing up front.
A few minutes later we should have a 3rd. Sissako finds space on the right wing and fizzes a low cross into the box, Coman controls the ball and helps it on for Lemar, who turns and shoots against the legs of Khocholava. Georgia have a chance of their own before half time, but when Zivzivadze plays Arabidze in behind the defence, the striker runs through and shoots just wide.
On the other side of half time, we find a 3rd goal and there are no prizes for guessing where it comes from. Digne whips a cross in from the left, Mbappé effortlessly brings the ball under control and smacks it into the top corner to complete his hat trick.
Lamine Fomba replaces Sissako just before the hour mark and Hernández replaces Lemar on the wing as I’d like the pair of them to have another chance to impress. With 20 minutes to go though, it’s Paul Pogba running the show. He rolls the ball over to the left wing for Digne and makes a break into the box to meet the full back’s cross at the far post and head in our 4th goal.
Bakayoko takes a bit of a knock soon after so I give Coquelin a cameo in his place, but apart from Hufnagel shooting straight at Areola in the final knockings, that’s that. A comfortable 4-0 win to take us clear at the top of our group.
I actually find out after the match that 12 wins in a row is a new record in European Championship Qualifying. It’s a nice record to have but this run goes back about 4 and a half years, so I can only really take a third of the credit. These matches have given me plenty to think about though, which is exactly what I wanted from them. Despite not having an awful lot to do, Areola looks good, even though he let in a goal against Liechtenstein. I think that was more to do with how openly we play and how well Liechtenstein were able to counter with Khous’ pace, so I’m not holding that against him. Sissako’s been solid and unphased, Cyprien’s definitely worth keeping in mind for future squads, Dembélé looked good and Mbappé took to the central striker role like a duck to water. And the water’s full of bread. And sexy lady ducks. I guess actually I should’ve said like a drake to water. I’ve completely forgotten what my original point was, but yeah. A lot to think about.