“You have gone mad!” Bechkoura shouts, almost knocking a potted plant over as he paces furiously across the floor of my hotel room. “You have lost your mind. No Pogba? No Griezmann? No Laporte or Rabiot? That’s the entire spine of the team!”
“And they are knackered.” I reply calmly, not looking up from the barbecue pulled pork baguette and chips that the nice concierge lady was kind of enough to bring me. “They need a break.”
“Have you seen what the press are saying about you?” He snorts. “We need to win! We need our best players or you’re out on your ridiculous metal arse!”
“I’m out of a job if we don’t win the Euros full stop; dropping points against Denmark wouldn’t change anything.” I glare at him now, my mouth covered in BBQ sauce. “We’ll still go through with a draw, but we won’t just get a draw because we’re France and we’ve got depth haven’t we, you clod. The lads coming in will do a job.”
“While your captain and the tournament’s joint top scorer sits on the bench with your vice-captain, your best ball winner and your best defender.” He clarifies.
“Did that concierge bring any salt up?”
Bechkoura sighs as he so often does. It’s a sigh that reflects his resignation to the fact that there is no changing my mind on this. It’s music to my ears.
Obviously I want the 3 points today. Obviously. Denmark aren’t to be taken lightly though and I honestly think it’ll be a tall order to better England’s result against Georgia, a match that’s kicking off alongside our own at 8PM. Like Bechkoura ham-handedly alluded to, I’m leaving out Laporte, Rabiot, Pogba and Griezmann as they’re in need of a break and I want them fresh for the Second Round. I didn’t want to take too many players out though because there’s still a danger of Denmark beating us, in which case it’d be possible that we wouldn’t be going through at all.
Umtiti, Tolisso and Maupay come in as like for like replacements for Laporte, Rabiot and Griezmann, while Kingsley Coman replaces Pogba and takes one of the interchangeable wide roles, allowing Thomas Lemar to move into the central Pogba role. Kylian Mbappé takes the captain’s armband for the day and I’ll be hoping he shows his leadership credentials by taking us to a comfortable win. I’ve also taken a note out of England’s book from their match against the Danes and we’re going to tweak Renaissance slightly to play slightly more patiently, retaining possession and playing the ball out from the back, before trying to pick Denmark apart in the final third with short, sharp passes.
“Let’s not go behind today”, I grin to the assembled team. “And let’s not just scrape through. Let’s finally show the World who we are and what the French can do.” The squad roar their approval and we make our way out of Stadio San Nicola’s away changing room, studs click-clacking against the floor as we stride out towards the pitch.
I’m optimistic and that optimism is quickly vindicated when we get our first chance: Straight from kick off we start zipping the ball across the turf and a 9 pass move ends up with Corentin Tolisso 25 yards from goal. He shoots, but the ball grazes the top of the crossbar as the French fans applaud the effort.
8 minutes in, the Danes go close too when Dolberg plays a nice one-two with his strike partner Cornelius before opening up his body on the edge of the box and trying to curl a shot into the far bottom corner, but Gauthier anticipates it well and makes a comfortable catch. We go up the other end and within a minute, win a corner. Lemar’s delivery is decent, but Lucas Digne’s the nearest man and has no chance against the 12 foot wall that is Vestergaard. Just then though, Thomas Delaney makes a very silly decision: As Vestergaard heads the ball effortlessly away, Delaney throws his arms forward and shoves Digne to the ground. There’s a very short, very silent pause and then the referee blows his whistle and runs over, pointing towards the penalty spot. Mbappé picks the ball up and walks straight over to the spot, almost daring his teammates to ask to take it. None do. Cappé Mbappé places the ball down, counts his steps back, waits for the whistle, runs up – And scores. It’s a close one. He goes almost straight down the middle and Michaelsen doesn’t move, but the keeper can’t get a strong enough hand to the ball to keep it out. I’ll take it though. 1-0 after 10 minutes.
It quickly becomes apparent that Denmark aren’t about to lie down and let us rack up a big scoreline to rival England for the top spot in the group, as they stay very defensively strong over the next 15 or so minutes. And then they go and do something that really annoys me: They equalise. 27 minutes into the match, Pierre-Emile Højbjerg hits a good pass down the right channel and Cornelius has the beating of Umtiti, reaching the ball first close to the right byline. He slides a pass across to the edge of the 6 yard box where Dolberg’s waiting to drill past Gauthier. 1-1. They almost actually take the lead before the break despite our incredible dominance throughout the half, when an Eriksen corner is flicked on by Dolberg at the near post and headed just over the top from 6 yards by that man Vestergaard. The ball lands safely on the roof of the net, but I’m not impressed as we trudge down the tunnel with the scores all square.
I decide to make a change for the second half: Thomas Lemar has had no joy at all filling in for Pogba, which I think is more to do with the fact that the Danes are so compact in the centre of their final third than any real failing of Thomas’. They’re also obviously very physical, so Moussa Dembélé replaces Lemar to inject a bit more physicality of our own and will link up with Maupay in a target man/poacher (Or big man/little man if you prefer) combination at the top of a 4-2-4.
In the 52nd minute, Sidibé plays a one-two with Tolisso from a right sided throw in level with the Danish box and then lobs in a high cross towards the back stick. Tiémoué Bakayoko gets up from midfield to nod the ball back across goal and Kingsley Coman arrives on the 6 yard box, stooping to head it against the post. For fucks sake. The chance doesn’t end there though – Sidibé retrieves the loose ball and we work it around. It finally ends up with Lucas Digne on the edge of the area and the full back has a pop, but Christensen throws his body in the way to deflect the shot wide.
2 minutes later, there’s action down the other end again. Coman gives away a free kick in a dangerous position, out on the left wing and level with our own box. Højbjerg chips it in towards the near post, Kasper Dolberg loses his marker Umtiti and gets his head to the ball, turning towards the top corner of the goal, but a superb flying save by Gauthier denies the Danes their second goal. He catches the resulting corner too as the fans applaud once more, then starts a counter attack. A long ball to Coman, a slid pass onto the right wing for Sidibé, a cross straight down that corridor between goalkeeper and defence. Cappé Mbappé loses Roerslev and gets there – MBAPPÉ – heads against the underside of the bar from 6 yards. Get me Varane’s water bottle.
With just 35 minutes now left to play, I make another change. Bakayoko looks leggy after running himself into the ground for us over the last 2 and a half games, so Sissako comes on to replace him. He looks unphased as he strides onto the pitch, which goes without saying. Good lad, Abi.
Just after the hour mark, the Danes come forward again through Cornelius on the left wing. He turns inside Varane and crosses for Ramkilde, who hits a really sweetly struck volley, but Leo Gauthier dives across again to tip the ball away. This lad’s really earning that number 1 shirt.
20 minutes to go now and we win another corner. In the absence of Lemar, Mbappé goes across and swings the ball into the box. Vestergaard routinely rises above everyone around him to head the ball clear, but it falls to Neal Maupay all alone, 25 yards from goal. He’s got time. He’s got space. Come on Neal. Maupay takes a touch, steadies himself and hammers a looping shot – Against the fucking bar! I start to howl in frustration, but the ball falls straight down into the 6 yard box, where Raphaël bloody Varane tucks it away. 2-1.
My scream turns into a cheer, filled with undertones of panic and relief. Bechkoura’s kept me updated on England’s match and let’s just say that 1st place is well beyond our reach at this point, so I decide to shut up shop. Lamine Fomba replaces Kylian Mbappé, who hands his armband to Tolisso as we debut Project: Barricade, a defensive 4-1-4-1 that I’ve used a hundred times but that now has a more French name. The Auxerre boys will provide the legs in midfield while Maupay acts as a makeshift right midfielder.
The changes work. Apart from a Coman potshot in the 89th minute that misses the target reasonably comfortably, the action’s over. We’ve taken 41 shots and 2 of them have gone in, we’ve hit the woodwork 8 times in the tournament so far, but we’ve qualified, taking 2nd place in Group E and we’ve done it unbeaten. Surely we can take some comfort in that.