With Euro 2016 just a few months away it is time to start having a look at some of the serious contenders for the crown. With a few teams looking decidedly off-form in qualifying and England going into the tournament off an unbeaten campaign this could be decidedly difficult to pick. This week sees France come under the spotlight, as I outline 5 reasons why I think this group of extremely talented young players could be the ones to fear on home soil next summer.
1. Talented Young Players
The most important thing to consider when considering a football tournament has to be the players of course. France are looking strong in every department, with a number of older leaders and a lot of young, exciting and very talented players also coming through. Most of the starting 11 have Champions League and World Cup experience behind them and many have experienced winning trophies, be it Ligue 1 (Blaise Matuidi), Serie A (Paul Pogba), La Liga (Raphael Varane) or the Premier League (Samir Nasri). The squad is packed full of trophy winners and it will likely be much the same team that narrowly lost to Brazil at the quarter final stage of last year's World Cup who will head into this tournament.
What is even better is that the likes of Varane, Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Anthony Martial are all under 25, which combined with the old(er) guard of Olivier Giroud, Karim Benzema and Samir Nasri, as well as experienced goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, provide the perfect blend of experience, youth, talent and fresh impetus. This squad is hugely talented and after the World Cup experience knows how to play in major tournaments too.
2. No Disruption
Ok so it's France: something is bound to blow up in their face when no one is expecting it. But without the divisive characters of Nicholas Anelka or Raymond Domenech in the dressing room and with the current set of players seemingly willing to work together there is hope that the temperamental nature of France teams of old is on the way out. Whilst Nasri and Benzema can both be moody and unproductive and Pogba has been known to be tetchy at times on the pitch, there are calming influences around the dressing room too. Patrice Evra and Steve Mandanda know how to keep teams together during tough times; the older players in the squad are, for the most part, leaders and positive influences on the younger players, which can only be a good thing.
There are also no bitter club rivalries: as much as the current Spain squad has evolved, the question of Barcelona vs. Real Madrid always persists; the German team is half Bayern and half players from clubs who hate Bayern; England have their players strewn all over the place and have no team bonds at all. The French team have the benefit of a number of key players playing at the same club: Laurent Koscielny and Giroud at Arsenal; Pogba and Evra and Juventus; Varane and Benzema at Madrid; Morgan Schneiderling and Martial at Manchester United. These pair combinations mean that almost everyone plays with someone else, but the squad remains undivided by club loyalties. This could be the most harmonious France team in years.
3. Managerial Stability
Didier Deschamps is a World and European Championship winning player; a multi-league winning defensive midfielder; and a Ligue 1 winning manager. The legendary Frenchman certainly has the credentials to lead his country to glory and after an impressive showing at the World Cup, including getting past stubborn, physical opponents in the group and only narrowly losing to eventual champions Germany in the quarter final he will be more experienced and canny this time round. International management is notoriously difficult but Deschamps took it in his stride in the run up to Brazil; now the pressure is greater, but it isn't like he's not used to it. After a glittering playing career and a solid managerial career to date there would be nothing more fitting to cement Deschamps place as a France legend than winning the Euros on home soil.
4. Home Advantage
The last time a major tournament was held in France was World Cup '98, when a certain Ronaldo wasn't up to much in the final and the hosts won the tournament. That bodes excellently for next summer's 24 team extravaganza in western Europe, as the French look to make use of vocal crowd support to take them all the way again. Brazil in 2014 were one of the worst Brazil sides in living memory and without the home crowd would almost certainly have fallen at a much earlier hurdle; Germany in 2006, South Korea in 2002 and Portugal in 2004 also spring to mind. Home advantage does seem to be more of a factor in World Cups; Austria and Switzerland hardly made the most of their advantage in 2008, nor did Poland or Ukraine in 2012. The difference is obvious; those four weren't footballing superpowers to begin with, unlike the others (with the exception of South Korea perhaps). With shorter journey times and very little time difference it is easier for players to acclimatise, making the advantage much less obvious. The French crowd will certainly play a major part though and the team can be sure of positive and loud backing wherever they go.
The French have given themselves some tough friendlies to prepare for the tournament: reigning World Champions and tournament favourites Germany and England in the coming weeks; Brazil and Belgium earlier in the year. They are giving themselves real challenges in order to compensate for the lack of qualifying campaign and in that sense they could be better prepared than England, who naively cruised through another very easy group and go into the tournament expecting that alone is enough to make them contenders (more on them in another piece!) These two upcoming, high profile friendlies will certainly act as a marker for where the team are in terms of preparation with just over 6 months to go; expect over-reaction either way.
In the coming weeks I will take a look at all the potential winners of next year's European Championships in France. Hope you enjoyed the first piece and if so please share it with other interested football fans!
Ali Haggis, Editor
This is where it all begins. Our resident analysts study the unrecognised players and examine the matches that are of interest across Europe.