I’m quiet on the flight over to Lisboa, which historically can mean anything from “Auxerre are about to get relegated” to “I’ve lost my cats”. Either way my backroom staff know by now that the best course of action is to give me some space. To be honest though my reason for being quiet is merely that I’m deep in thought. This international break has the potential to be the most interesting in quite a while as it’s my last chance to experiment ahead of the Euros in Italy and I want to make the most of it. We’ll be playing two friendly matches and I’m obligated not to over-play certain players at the behest of their club sides, but the only footballers not at my disposal are Samuel Umtiti, who’s picked up a knock to his heel and Kylien Mbappé, who misses out with a hip injury but has already secured the first spot on the plane in the Summer.
I’m confident that I already have the three best French goalkeepers in my squad, but the real question is: Who starts? Who’s our number one? With respect to Alban Lafont, he’s third choice. I’ll be giving Gauthier and Areola chances to win a starting berth.
Goalkeepers: Leo Gauthier (FC Sochaux), Alphonse Areola (Swansea City), Alban Lafont (Stoke City)
In defence my only real headache is that I’m probably only going to take two out of our three accomplished left backs to Italy and I’ve made the early decision that Lucas Digne is one of them. This gives me the opportunity to let the dependable Benjamin Mendy and the younger Theo Hernández fight it out amongst themselves for the other spot, so like Gauthier and Areola, they’ll both get a chance in these friendlies. We’ve had a nice bit of luck in the fact that Real Madrid chose to sign Dayot Upamecano from FC Porto in January for £48M, so there’s the potential for a nice partnership with Varane going forwards. Along with Raphaël, Dayot and Aymeric, I want to give Arsenal’s Yannick Clauss an opportunity. He’s had a good season in North London and I’ve had my scouts watching him closely since he starred in France U21’s Euros win last summer.
Defenders: Djibril Sidibé, Corentin Tolisso, Theo Hernández (All AS Monaco), Raphaël Varane, Dayot Upamecano (Both Real Madrid), Aymeric Laporte (Chelsea), Yannick Clauss (Arsenal), Benjamin Mendy (Atlético Madrid)
I’ve already spoken about one of our biggest surprises for this squad – Brahim Ferhat’s earned his first foray into full international football and Sissako’s earned his return. Lucas Tousart is in again, fighting for one of the most competitive positions in the squad, while I also hand a call up to Panathinaikos’ Corentin Jean, who at 28 years old has never made a senior international appearance. A very productive season in Greece for the former Monaco left winger/ striker though has seen him score 21 goals, so he’s worth a look.
Midfielders: Adrien Rabiot, Tiémoué Bakayoko (Both AS Monaco), Abdoulaye Sissako, Brahim Ferhat (Both AJ Auxerre), Lucas Tousart (Club Brugge), Kingsley Coman, Paul Pogba (Both Manchester United), Thomas Lemar (Manchester City), Corentin Jean (Panathinaikos)
Up front there are no real surprises unless you count Jean and Ferhat, who could both feature in the position. Griezmann and Maupay are by far and away our best striking options after Kylien Mbappé, whose best position I’m still not quite certain of, while Hervin Ongenda offers decent backup.
Strikers: Antoine Griezmann (Atlético Madrid), Neal Maupay (FC Lorient), Hervin Ongenda (Standard Liège)
Areola, Tolisso, Tousart, Pogba, Jean and Griezmann are all under instruction not to be given more than a half per game, so let’s see what we can put together for our first friendly: A reverse of the European International League 2023 Final away at Portugal.
Although I’m fairly cautious of going out to attack Portugal away from home, we’ll stick with Project: Renaissance for this one as I’ll more than likely be sticking to that system throughout the upcoming tournament. Gauthier starts in net, Clauss makes his first appearance for me in a defence also containing Sidibé, Hernández and Laporte, who captains the team on his 50th appearance for France. Rabiot and Tousart are our battlers in midfield, while Coman, Ongenda and Lemar start behind debutant Jean.
I’m not exactly bowled over, I have to say. It’s a quiet first half with Renato Sanches the only player to bring either set of fans to their feet with a pot shot from 25 yards. Leo Gauthier easily holds onto it. Tousart and Jean are especially disappointed when they make way at half time, having not really made much of an impact, but they can shout at their club managers for that substitution when they get back. Sissako and Griezmann take their places, with Pogba and my young debutant Brahim Ferhat also replacing Ongenda and Coman. Once again, the pride that courses through my veins as Brahim takes the field is marred slightly by the fact that I’m having to give him his international bow myself, but not by much.
It doesn’t take long in the second half for things to go downhill. Within 2 minutes of the restart a tidy move from the Portuguese is finished when Sousa plays a pinpoint pass into our box, where Sidibé’s allowed João Carvalho to slip past him and through on goal. Carvalho drives the ball low past Gauthier to give the hosts the lead.
10 minutes later they double it, this time after a long ball over the top of our defence by Guedes. Zé Gomes leaves Laporte for dead, runs through and slots the ball past Gauthier for 0-2. This seems as good a time as any to have a look at Project: Revolution, which has been gathering dust in my notebook ever since I created it following our defeat against the Netherlands some 18 months ago. Revolution is a simple, counter attacking 4-4-2 to be used on the rare occasion that Renaissance fails us. There’s really not an awful lot else to say about it. The change requires a shuffle of personnel, so Benjamin Mendy replaces Adrien Rabiot and slots in at left back while Theo takes the left wing. Ferhat will run his socks off alongside fellow striker Griezmann, which luckily I know I can count on him to do.
We nearly reap an immediate reward just 3 minutes later when Lemar receives the ball on the right wing, whips a cross into the box and Antoine Griezmann’s header is tipped against the bar at full stretch by Lopes. Notably, that’s our first real chance of the match. Unfortunately though my optimism doesn’t last very long. 5 minutes after the chance, Clauss is dragged out of position by Renato Sanches, who then plays a slick pass into the resulting space for Zé Gomes, who places Portugal’s third goal into the top corner from 8 yards.
Thomas Lemar takes it upon himself to single handedly try and drag us back from the brink of defeat in the last 20 minutes, first going close when he drives in from the right, plays a lovely one-two with Griezmann to get clear of the defence but then has a low driven shot saved well by Lopes and then when he wriggles to the edge of the box in injury time and has a go, but again the Portuguese keeper is equal to it. It’s been a tough match and perhaps a lesson learned, but I would venture to say that 0-3 is a flattering scoreline for the hosts.
Our next opponents are Bosnia, away from home. In case you were wondering, no. I did not arrange these friendly matches, nor did I pick the opposition. Bosnia struck me as a strange choice when the fixture was announced as we played them twice in the Euro 2024 qualifiers last year, but oh well.
I’m making wholesale changes for this one in order to give everyone a look, although I am still sticking with Renaissance. Areola is in goal, guarded by Tolisso, Mendy and Real Madrid pair Varane and Upamecano. Sissako and Bakayoko are our central midfielders, while Griezmann, Pogba and Ferhat line up behind Maupay. Bosnia will set up to pack the centre of the pitch, so we’ll get our full backs bombing up and exploiting the wings, where they should have plenty of room.
I’m quite puzzled… Shocked even. I expected us to resume normality shortly after kick off by opening the scoring, but it’s Bosnia that go closest after a tightly contested first 20 minutes. Bihorac gets goal-side of Varane and runs clean through, Areola comes out to narrow the angle and Bihorac smacks a shot against the bar from the edge of the box. Luckily, normality is actually resumed within a minute of the incident when Sissako lays the ball off for Griezmann on the edge of the area. Our vice captain hits a curling shot against the far post and Neal Maupay reacts fastest to knock in the rebound.
Just before the half hour the Auxerre boys link up well when Sissako plays a pass to Ferhat on the right hand side of the box and the full debutant drills a shot just wide of the near post. Before half time though, Bosnia rattle the woodwork again with an absolute rocket from Masic that comes out of nowhere, goes straight over Areola’s head and crashes back off the bar.
I make several changes once again at the break as we look to expand our quite disappointing and fortunate 1 goal lead: Lafont, Clauss, Laporte, Lemar and Jean all replace Areola, Tolisso, Upamecano, Pogba and Griezmann. Clauss will play at right back and Jean on the left wing, where they’re comfortable. The first good chance takes a further 15 minutes of football to create but it comes from a great Benjamin Mendy cross from deep on the left wing. The ball flies straight through to Abi Sissako, all on his own ten yards out, but he slices his volley wide of the far post. It’s disappointing from Abi, but I’ve grown to accept over the last few years that goals are a rare cherry on top of his game as oppose to a regular occurrence.
With half an hour to play, Maupay makes way and Coman comes on so that I can give Ferhat a run out up front. We very nearly double our lead just 5 minutes later too, when Jean releases Mendy down the left wing and this time he drives a vicious cross towards the near side of the 6 yard box. Thomas Lemar glances the ball against the post, Jurcic attempts to clear but only swipes the ball up in the air and then Kingsley Coman heads over from 6 yards out.
In the 75th minute, Clauss makes his way to the right touchline and drills a cross to the edge of the box, where Bakayoko meets the ball and smashes a shot against the unsuspecting legs of a defender. It comes back to Coman, who swings his foot at the rebound – And hits the post. How on Earth is this still 1-0? Elijazovic clears for a corner and Lemar runs over to take it. Take it he does, swinging the ball to the near post, where Aymeric Laporte rises to head it into the net. Finally.
I’m strangely… I don’t know… Unnerved, I suppose. This isn’t how I thought this break would go. The debutants haven’t really impressed me all that much. Clauss was alright, but Ferhat and Jean were quiet. I think the thing that’s really shaken me more than anything else is how much we’ve struggled to create chances. The Portugal match in particular was alarming. Project: Renaissance‘s not-so-secret achilles heel is that our defence can be easily got at by clever movement or quick counter attacks over the defence, but I accept that weakness because of how dominant we usually are and because of my faith in my squad to outscore our opponents. I’m probably over-thinking it, something that I know full well I shouldn’t do. It’s not as if we played our best side in either match, but still… Yeah, I’m pretty unnerved.
We’re not done yet though. Oh no. Although we’ve played both of our friendlies, we only need to wait a couple of days before the draw for the group stages of the Euros are announced. I can’t lie, my nerves go straight out of the window when Paolo Maldini and Gary Lineker start rummaging around and pulling out the names of each nation. It’s pure, unbridled excitement. This is when the Euros become real and tangible. This is when specific plans can start to be drawn up and when imaginations can begin to run wild.
I have to laugh when I realise that Georgia are in our group. Georgia, who continue to pay the price for thumping my Liechtenstein side back in the day, first by being demolished by an aggregate scoreline of 10-2 by France in last year’s Euro 2024 qualifiers and now this. Ranked 50th in the World, realistically Giorgi Kiplani’s men should be no match for us. I know I’m setting myself up to have this blown back in my face, but Georgia should be a guaranteed win.
Denmark follow shortly afterwards. Now this will be interesting. The Danes are full of big strong Nordish types but they also have some serious quality in the likes of Christian Eriksen, Yussuf Poulsen, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg and Andreas Christensen. Ranked 18th in the World, Anders Jensen’s Danes are not to be taken lightly.
The final nation to join France in Group E of Euro 2024 will be… Drum roll please…
Oh shit. Oh no. Oh shit.
It’s fucking England.