France’s match against England tonight represents much more than the actions that are going to take place on the pitch. Tonight offers a chance for the French to send a message of hope to their public after the tragedy that occurred over the weekend. Les Bleu’s have often been the voice of society, for example standing firm during the 1998 World Cup when ex-players labelled some of their biggest stars as “foreigners” for ancestry that came from other parts of the French Empire.

Their most important players during that tournament had roots in Algeria, Guadeloupe and Mali. Before that in the 1984 European Championships, their famous Carre Magique (Magic Square) had routes in Mali, Senegal, Italy and Poland. Tonight’s team have the same issue, as players from different cultural backgrounds, religions and beliefs come together to form a team, united ahead of their hosting of Euro 2016. Whilst their actions off the pitch are going to be under the spotlight, let’s take a look at three players who can alter their fortunes on it.

Antoine Griezmann

It’s hard to believe that Griezmann has only just become a fundamental part of the French national team, and even harder to believe that he was nearly left at home as the squad traveled to Brazil last year. During the tournament, Les Bleu’s dazzled with their attacking football, putting 5 past Switzerland before crashing out to Germany. Griezmann offers Deschamps team natural width, but also carries a goal scoring threat that many wingers seem to lack. His ‘tough love’ relationship with Diego Simeone has transformed him from fleeting winger into gritty striker, meaning that the Sociedad-schooled youngster may move into the middle. The Aletico striker’s relationship with Deschamps has never been easy, with the coach always pushing his player to do more. However, his recent form seems to have delighted his coach who described his protege as “clinical, comfortable on either side and tactically very aware”. On a personal level, Griezmann’s sister was a survivor of the Bataclan attacks at the weekend and he will be keen to do her proud.

Lassana Diarra

Like Griezmann, Diarra has direct ties to the Paris attacks that occurred over the weekend. His cousin Asta Diakite was one of the 129 people killed. Friday’s game against Germany was meant to be a momentous occasion for the Marseille man. Born in Paris and making his comeback at the stadium he grew up less than 2 kilometers away from, Diarra has finally set the wheels of his career back in motion after it stalled in Russia. His performances for Olympique de Marseille have been incredibly impressive, adding steel and experience to a team that is young and attack minded. Sitting in front of the back four for Marseille his defensive displays have been eye-catching, but it is his reading of the game that is the most impressive. Like many defensive midfielders nowadays his distribution is as good as his tackling and 80 solid minutes versus World Champions Germany suggested that Diarra still has the class on the pitch to affect games at international level. Emotionally, Diarra will be keen to pay his respects to someone he described as his ‘big sister’ by playing the game of his life.

Blaise Matuidi

In a team full of international superstars, Matuidi has become one of the most important players at Paris Saint Germain. The ultimate box-to-box midfielder, with incredible athleticism it’s surprising that Matuidi has not been gaining attention from clubs on this side of the channel. Matuidi was PSG’s first signing after their Qatari takeover, and was bought in as a direct replacement for the outgoing Claude Makalele. In his time at PSG, Matuidi has grown infintely as a player; adding a fantastic passing range to his already rounded games, but most importantly has a knack of scoring goals at crucial times – scoring the winning goal against Barcelona in the Champions League, and the goal to secure PSG’s league title against Montpelier. Acting as the lynchpin for France at international level, Matuidi has been a mainstay since Euro2012 providing a viable out-ball to relieve pressure, but most importantly acting as the glue between defence and attack. France have an electric front-three and the work rate of Matuidi clearing up in behind allows those to flourish. His lung-bursting runs will catch the eye tonight, but be mindful that there is much more to Matuidi than running.

About the Author – Ben Jarman

Freelance football writer with a penchant for Spanish and European football. Work published by Fulham FC, Italian FA and the Evening Standard.

Twitter: @sonikkicks


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Last summer, an unfancied Netherlands team reached the semi-finals of the World Cup in Brazil, losing on penalties to Argentina before comprehensively beating the hosts in the third place play-off. 15 months on, the Dutch find themselves on the brink of failing to reach Euro 2016 after a dismal qualification campaign.

The Netherlands’ run to the last four of the World Cup in 2014 was a fine achievement for manager Louis van Gaal. Drawn alongside holders Spain, an up-and-coming Chile and difficult-to-beat Australia, many predicted that the Netherlands would not even make it past the group stage, but the current Manchester United boss succeeded with a pragmatic, counter-attacking approach and 5-3-2 formation that went against many of the traditional Dutch ideals.

Indeed, regardless of the third-place finish in Brazil, there was unease in some quarters at the style of play that had been employed to get that far; despite being home to only 16.8 million people, an attacking, proactive and entertaining way of doing things has always been seen as equally – or perhaps even more – important as winning in the Netherlands.

When Van Gaal departed at the end of the tournament to join United, the KNVB decided they would attempt to return to the days of 4-3-3 and possession-based football that the Netherlands became famous for in the 1970s. In hindsight, those intentions – while admirable – look to have been severely flawed.

Guus Hiddink, the veteran Dutch coach who has managed Real Madrid and Chelsea at club level and South Korea, Australia, Russia and Turkey in the international game – as well as a four-year spell in charge of his home country between 1994 and 1998 – was the man chosen to lead the project, with Danny Blind set to take over from the 68-year-old after the Euros in what seemed like a well-thought-out succession plan.

The Netherlands immediately ran into problems, though, losing to Czech Republic in their opening encounter before unconvincingly defeating Kazakhstan in Amsterdam and succumbing to a 2-0 defeat to Iceland in Reykjavik. As the months rolled on, it became increasingly clear that the current Dutch side is simply not good enough to play the style of football that the authorities wanted to reintroduce.

It would be unfair to claim that there is no talent in this Netherlands outfit. Memphis Depay, Jordy Clasie and Georginio Wijnaldum are all gifted youngsters with huge potential, while Arjen Robben, Robin van Persie and Wesley Sneijder have been among the best players in their position in the world at various points over the last five years.

In between those two groups, though, the pool is rather shallow: there are no real Dutch stars between the ages of 26 and 30, the theoretical prime of a player’s career.

There is no way of knowing whether a more pragmatic, counter-attacking approach would have aided the Netherlands in their attempt to reach Euro 2016; had they followed the template that got them to the World Cup semi-finals, though, it is likely that they would have been able to qualify automatically by finishing in the top two of Group A.

Instead, the Dutch have already passed up that chance and will now battle it out with Turkey for a place in the play-offs. Blind’s charges are two points behind the Turks with two matches remaining: the Dutch take on Kazakhstan on Saturday and Czech Republic on Tuesday, with Turkey facing the Czechs and Iceland on the same days.

The situation is thus out of the Netherlands’ hands. The increased format of the European Championship from 16 teams to 24 was supposed to make it even easier for the continent’s larger nations to qualify. After a disastrous year, the Netherlands look set to be the campaign’s biggest casualty.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball




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A hat-trick from a widely unknown 17-year-old in the semi-final with France was followed by a brace in the final against hosts Sweden. The year was 1958, with the teenager in question inspiring Brazil to their first ever World Cup and kick-starting a spell of dominance that would see the Selecao triumph in two of the next three editions of football’s biggest tournament.

Things could have been very different, though: Pele, the young striker who wowed the watching public that summer in Scandinavia, went on to establish himself as one of the greatest footballers to have ever played the game, but even the man himself later acknowledged that his winning goal in the narrow 1-0 win over Wales in the first knockout round game was the most important he ever scored. Having begun the tournament sidelined with a knee injury, that strike guaranteed Pele’s place in the team for the encounters with France and Sweden that did so much for his personal profile.

A man of the Brazilian’s extraordinary talent would surely have made his mark at some point in the future anyway, but it is interesting that Pele highlights the clash with Wales as integral to the magnificent career he went on to have.

“It was a difficult game but I have good memories as I scored the goal that took Brazil to the semi-finals and, eventually, led us to win the Cup,” he later said. “That goal gave me confidence. Wales marked very tightly at the back and I remember getting the ball, turning and squeezing it into the corner of the net. I consider it the most important goal I’ve ever scored – it gave me the confidence to continue my career.”

On the other side of the coin, Wales were somewhat unfortunate to lose. John Charles, the legendary former Leeds United, Juventus and Cardiff City striker, was missing through injury, with many of his team-mates believing that the presence of the burly frontman could have made the difference. 57 years on, Wales have yet to appear in another major international tournament.

All of that could be about to change, however: Chris Coleman’s side, who lead Group B in qualification for next summer’s European Championship in France, require just a single point from their final two games with Bosnia-Herzegovina and Andorra to reach the competition proper.

It has been a truly fantastic campaign for the Welsh. Critics of the expansion of the Euros from 16 teams to 24 have argued that the inclusion of eight more sides will lead to a dilution in quality as smaller nations sneak in through the back door; Wales, though, currently top their group and would therefore be on course to qualify under the old format too.

Gareth Bale has clearly been pivotal to their progress – Wales are now ranked eighth in the world after finding themselves in 117th place in 2011 – but labelling them a one-man team is harsh. Indeed, the fact that Coleman’s charges have kept five consecutive clean sheets and conceded no goals from open play in eight matches is evidence of their terrific defensive organisation and commitment, while the former Fulham and Real Sociedad boss also deserves praise for finding a system and approach that gets the best out of the Real Madrid star – after all, despite Ryan Giggs’ exploits at the highest level for Manchester United, his country were never able to successfully build a competitive team around him.

Wales are almost certain to reach Euro 2016 given that Andorra await next Tuesday, but the Dragons will be desperate to confirm their qualification as soon as possible with a draw against Bosnia-Herzegovina on Saturday.

The whole of Wales will be watching the drama unfold in Sarajevo, hoping that their nation completes what would be a remarkable accomplishment. Somewhere in Brazil, maybe even Pele will be following the action with interest.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball


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It is truly remarkable that, following an incredible 1-0 win against the Netherlands in Amsterdam last week, tiny Iceland – which is home to just 323,000 people – sat at the summit of a Euro 2016 qualifying group containing the Dutch (population 16.8 million), Turkey (75 million), Czech Republic (10.5 million), Latvia (two million) and Kazakhstan (17 million).

Securing a 0-0 draw with the latter nation in Reykjavik on Sunday – the seventh time they have avoided defeat in eight qualification matches – confirmed Iceland’s place in France for what will be their debut appearance in a major international tournament next summer, an astonishing achievement for a side who were thrashed 7-1 by Slovenia and 4-0 by Romania in the mid-1990s.

Swansea City’s Gylfi Sigurdsson and former Chelsea and Barcelona star Eidur Gudjohnsen are the two most well-known members of the current squad, but Nantes striker Kolbeinn Sigthorsson is among the most important. The 25-year-old was excellent against Danny Blind’s Netherlands outfit, leading the line expertly as Iceland picked up their greatest result of all-time.

Many observers claimed – somewhat harshly – that Sigthorsson’s display for his country last Thursday was the best he had ever played at the Amsterdam ArenA, his home stadium during a four-year spell at Ajax that began in 2011 and ended this summer.

It is fair to say that the frontman was unable to reach the level that illustrious predecessors such as Marco van Basten, Dennis Bergkamp and Zlatan Ibrahimovic regularly hit, but his return of 31 goals in 80 league appearances for the Dutch giants was respectable enough.

Sigthorsson, though, certainly seems a better fit with his national side than he was with Ajax. Iceland made good use of his strength and aerial ability against the Netherlands, frequently hitting loan diagonals towards Sigthorsson, who generally held the ball up magnificently and brought his team-mates into play. As the hosts closed Iceland down high up the pitch early on, Sigthorsson represented the ideal outlet, allowing his side to go long and beat the Dutch press.

Bruno Martins Indi’s sending-off after 32 minutes altered the complexion of the encounter, handing Iceland a man advantage and the opportunity to enjoy longer spells of possession. When Sigurdsson buried a penalty early in the second half, the Netherlands were forced to push up the pitch and seek out an equaliser; target man Sigthorsson became increasingly important at holding onto the ball and providing relief to a defensive unit that may otherwise have come under siege.

The build-up to the decisive spot kick was probably the best example of the role the 25-year-old played until he was withdrawn in the 64th minute. A long pass forward was nodded down by Sigthorsson to midfielder Birkir Bjarnason, who pushed the ball past Gregory van der Wiel and drew a foul from the Paris Saint-Germain right-back.

The move to Nantes should help Sigthorsson, who thrives most when he is deployed as an out-and-out centre-forward and acts as a powerful, hard-working focal point for his team; while not ideally suited to Ajax’s methods and style of play, Sigthorsson is a perfectly competent striker who should prove his worth in Ligue 1 this term.

Three starts have yet to field a goal in France’s top flight, but the former AZ Alkmaar man has a big role to play for the side currently seventh in the early standings, just as he does for his country at the European Championship in nine months’ time.

About the Author – Greg Lea

Freelance football writer. Work published by FourFourTwo, The Guardian, World Soccer, Goal, The National, Squawka, Eurosport, The Blizzard + others.

Twitter @GregLeaFootball


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