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Kanté returns as Deschamps, France go for broke

N'Golo Kante France N'Golo Kante - The Canadian Press

France is good enough to win Euro 2024.

Les Bleus are normally good enough to win every tournament they enter because the talent pool in French football has run deep over much of the past 30 years. When France doesn’t make a deep run into a tournament is a much greater surprise than when they do. But competing for a championship and winning one are entirely different things, and France won’t win Euro 2024 by simply having the most talent.

Manager Didier Deschamps’ Euro roster features eight returning players from the squad that captured the 2018 World Cup in Russia. That was the last time France captured a major honour. Their exits at the last two international tournaments – Euro 2020 and the 2022 World Cup – still smart and this summer’s tourney will provide the opportunity for French football to once again reign supreme.

Euro 2020 was the second time that France had entered a Euro as world champions. They did so at Euro 2000, after winning the World Cup at home in 1998, and became the first-ever World Cup holders to capture the Euro, memorably defeating Italy, 2-1, when Sylvain Wiltord forced extra time in the fourth minute of stoppage before David Trezeguet and won it with a golden goal in the 103rd minute.

There would be no such heroics at Euro 2020. While France emerged from Group F, that tournament’s Group of Death that also featured Germany and Portugal, as winners, they only won a single game – a 1-0 victory over Germany in their opener on a Mats Hummels own goal. In the Round of 16, a casual performance against Switzerland saw a late 3-1 lead blown and Les Bleus would go on to crash out on penalties. The performance, or lack thereof, was enough for many fans and pundits alike to call for Deschamps’ dismissal.

Deschamps stayed on and France qualified for the 2022 World Cup with little trouble, going undefeated in eight matches to top its group. Despite a shock loss to Tunisia in their final group-stage match (after already having qualified for the knockouts), Les Bleus finished atop Group D in Qatar. A Kylian Mbappé brace saw them dispatch Poland with relative ease, 3-1, in the Round of 16. In the quarters, a late second-half goal from all-time leading scorer Olivier Giroud lifted Les Bleus to a 2-1 win over archrivals England. Then in the semis, France ended Morocco’s Cinderella run with a 2-0 win.

The 2022 World Cup Final was a modern classic, bringing together two of world football’s behemoths in Argentina and France. It was also a battle between the greatest of all-time, Lionel Messi, and his heir apparent in Mbappé. Both men would put on a performance for the ages, with Mbappé scoring a hat-trick, but it was Argentina who would emerge victorious on penalties, 4-2 (3-3 aet), to win their first World Cup since 1986.

Last gasp for Deschamps?

With the sting of that defeat still fresh in Deschamps’ mind, he’s put together a squad that represents a changing of the guard in French football and it’s one he believes can take to the pitch against anybody. A mix of veteran leadership and youth, the France squad features many expected names and a couple of surprises, including a returning stalwart to the midfield.

The World Cup Final would be Hugo Lloris’ last appearance in a France shirt, meaning the search for a new No. 1 was on. The job appears to be Mike Maignan’s to lose. The Milan keeper was on the squads at both the last Euro and World Cup, but he was an unused substitute. Joining him will be Brice Samba of Lens and West Ham’s Alphonse Arreola.

Lucas Hernandez’s bad luck continued this spring. Injured in the first game of the World Cup that saw him miss out on the rest of the tournament, the Paris Saint-Germain centre-back tore his ACL in a Champions League match with Borussia Dortmund and is unavailable for selection for the Euro as he faces another lengthy spell on the sidelines. His brother, Theo Hernandez of Milan, will head to Germany, though, as will Inter’s Benjamin Pavard, Jules Koundé of Barcelona, Bayern Munich’s Dayot Upamecano, Ibrahima Konaté of Liverpool, Arsenal’s William Saliba, Jonathan Clauss of Marseille and Real Madrid’s Ferland Mendy, who missed Euro 2020 with injury and hasn’t worn a France shirt in nearly two years.

Perhaps the biggest omission on the backline is Nice’s Jean-Clair Todibo. The 24-year-old centre-back signed for Barca in 2019 from Toulouse, but couldn’t break into the first team and was sent out on multiple loan spells. Sold to Nice in 2021, Todibo has emerged into one of Europe’s top young central defenders and is expected to be of interest to a host of big clubs in this summer’s transfer market, with Manchester United chief among them.

Kanté returns to Les Bleus

The biggest surprise of the squad comes in the midfield with the return of N’Golo Kanté to the fold. A Premier League winner at both Leicester City and Chelsea, the 33-year-old defensive genius has not suited up for Les Bleus since the summer of 2022. Riddled with injuries over the past several seasons, Kanté is once again healthy, but playing in a lesser league with the Saudi Pro League’s Al-Ittihad. The move is a risky one. The former Premier League Player of the Season’s inclusion could be a stroke of genius by Deschamps or prove to be a wasted roster spot.

Kanté is joined by Real duo Aurélian Tchouaméni, who is in a fitness battle after picking up an injury in a Champions League win over Bayern Munich, and Eduardo Camavinga, as well as Juventus veteran Adrien Rabiot and Monaco’s Youssouf Fofana. Youth will also be served in the middle of the park with the inclusion of 18-year-old Warren Zaire-Emery of PSG. Snubbed is Matteo Guendouzi. Having never lived up to early promise at Arsenal, the 24-year-old returned to the national setup after a two-year absence earlier this year thanks to a solid season on loan at Lazio from Marseille.

Interesting choices were made up front by Deschamps to go along with the obvious inclusions. Returning to lead the line is talisman Mbappé, who is widely expected to join Real after the tournament after leaving PSG as a free agent. New Los Angeles FC signing Giroud is also in the squad, as is another all-time great in Atletico’s Antoine Griezmann. The other holdovers from Russia are wingers Ousmane Dembélé of PSG and Bayern’s Kingsley Coman. Inter’s Marcus Thuram and Randal Kolo Muani of PSG, both part of the squad in Qatar, will also head to Germany.

The last remaining spot goes to the uncapped Bradley Barcola of PSG, who was taken ahead of some other deserving names.  The 21-year-old from Lyon has four Ligue 1 this season in his first year with the French champions. That means there is no room for Crystal Palace’s Michael Olise in, perhaps, the biggest omission of the entire roster. The 22-year-old is a winger by trade, but has operated closer to a No. 10 in a very impressive campaign for the Eagles that has caught the eye of a number of European heavyweights. Palace teammate Jean-Philippe Mateta, who had 16 Premier League goals this past season, is also a no. There is also no room on the plane for Aston Villa winger Moussa Diaby and Chelsea’s Christopher Nkunku.

In a competitive Group D that also includes the Netherlands and Poland, France opens its Euro on June 17 against Austria.