Next June the eastern shores of the Mediterranean Sea will play host to one of football’s major youth tournaments, the UEFA European Under-21 Championship. For Eric Mombaerts & his talented French side the hopes are high for a successful campaign after a thoroughly impressive qualification period that saw Les Bleus notch up 7 wins out of 8 with their only defeat coming after qualification was achieved. The numbers were more than backed up by impressive displays on the pitch from some of the country’s up & coming stars. There’s a feeling in the camp that this side can achieve the sort of success their 1988 counterparts (featuring a young Eric Cantona) did when they lifted the trophy 24 years ago. Mixed with an impressive track record in Under 19 & Under 18 tournaments the expectations are obviously high for a nation that seems to have a knack of producing some outstanding young talent.
The team’s journey started way back on 3rd September 2011 with a comprehensive win over Latvia. Although the scoreline suggests a more than comfortable win it took 33 minutes for Mombaerts’ side to break through when Steven Joseph-Monrose latched onto a Frédéric Bulot cross. A goal from Eliaquim Mangala & a lovely lofted finish from substitute M’baye Niang rounded off a solid start to the campaign for the French. Les Bleus followed up their bright start with two 2-0 victories over both Kazakhstan & Romania with Joshua Guilavogui grabbing both against Kazakhstan followed by a Emmanuel Rivière brace against the Romanian’s.
The return fixture against Romania in France a month later was their most clinical to date. Montpellier wide man Remy Cabella opened the scoring in the 37th with a tidy volleyed finish following a chested assist from Alexandre Lacazette. The French had to wait until late into the second half though to seal victory through a goal from Lacazette himself. The Olympique Lyonnais front man latched onto a lovely through ball from Arsenal’s Francis Coquelin before rifling the ball past Alexandru Pena in the Romanian goal. 8 minutes later captain Sébastien Corchia rounded off proceedings with a wonderful 25 yard free-kick putting an exclamation mark on an impressive performance.
Two home wins over 2nd place Slovakia (2-0) & Latvia (3-0) put the side on the verge of qualification. Maybe more impressively the squad had yet to concede a goal in 6 games scoring 15 goals in the process. Mombarets’ team were literally sweeping everyone aside & would continue to do so against Kazakhstan in Astana winning 3-0 & sealing their place in the play-off draw in September. The sparkling form of Remy Cabella, Alexandre Lacazette & Antoine Griezmann continued as they all grabbed goals on the night with all 3 men taking their total of goals in the competition to 2 each. Their final game against Slovakia would see the side suffer their first defeat & concede their first goal as they were caught twice by a determined Slovakia side as a lack of concentration cost the team a 100% record in qualification. The game it has to be said is a minor blip on a staggering qualifying campaign. 7 wins, 1 lost, 21 points. 2nd placed Slovakia could only manage 15 points slipping up twice to Romania as well as the earlier loss to the French.
After their magnificent performance the side was seeded highly in the play-off draw & will now play Norway in October to see if they are among the 7 teams that will join Israel in the final tournament in June. Norway should by no means be taken lightly but the odds that Les Bleus will make the final 8 are high. Focus is needed to see off a resilient opponent before setting their sights on the trophy come June. Holders Spain no doubt will be odds on favourites to go all the way with the likes of Germany & England likely to be in mix come the Summer but if the French can maintain the dominance they’ve shown so far they have a very good chance of going all the way.
So who are the young men that have got them this far & who are the stars to look out for if they do make the finals in June?
Club Side: Toulouse FC
Appearances So Far: 8
Ahamada is the only player to feature in all 8 qualifying games. He is without the undisputed number 1 choice between the sticks representing club side Toulouse week in, week out despite being only 21 years old. As previously stated the Les Pitchouns shot stopper has only conceded 2 goals in the whole campaign both coming in the final game against Slovakia were he was more than to blame for at least one. Despite his impressive youth international record Ahamada does have a habit of producing heart in mouth moments due to a bad case of Barthez-ism often coming to claim balls out of his reach or letting chances slipping through he should of kept hold of. With that said he has been in good form this season in Ligue 1 conceding 6 in 6 & helping Toulouse only pick up one defeat so far to likely league winners PSG. He’s even managed to bag himself a goal scoring a diving header in the 95th against Stade Rennais to earn his side a 2-2 draw. Extremely likely to be in squad against Norway & beyond.
Wissam Ben Yedder
Club Side: Toulouse FC
Appearances So Far: 1
Despite only making one appearance against Slovakia (coming on as a 73rd minute substitute) during qualifying there is every chance the Toulouse forward will be on a plane to Israel this Summer. The youngster of Tunisian descent has been in lethal form so far this season bagging 4 goals in 6 games with no sign of letting up. He seems to have a real eye for goal & is in the mould of ‘an impact substitute’.Think Ole Gunnar Solskjaer & Jermain Defoe. Small, crafty & a pain in the arse. Whether he earns a starting place in October’s team or not is very much down to not only his form but the performance of others like Emmanuel Riviere (top goal scorer in qualifying), Alexandre Lacazette & Antoine Griezmann. With Henri Saivet always a feature within the squad as well Ben Yedder must maintain his early form until the start of the play off”s. Mombaerts seems to currently favour the front 3 of Lacazette, Griezmann & Lyon’s Clément Grenier but he may not be able to ignore the Toulouse hitman much longer. Likely to be in the squad come October (& beyond) but whether he’s a starter or not is very much in his own hands.
Club Side: Real Madrid
Appearances So Far: 7
The former RC Lens youngster made the move to the Spanish giants in the Summer of 2011 & has made sparse appearance’s so far. With that said over recent weeks he featured in the clubs Champions League clash with Man City as well as other appearances in his début season last year. He will no doubt draw comparisons to former Lille OSC man Adil Rami (he’s a French centre back that plays in Spain. Simple) but is mobile, athletic & more than capable of playing in a holding midfield role. Although far from a regular for his club (unlike most of his international team mates) Varane is very much a big part of the Under 21 set up. The versatile centre back as bagged himself a couple of goals during qualification & has impressed with solid & unfussy performances. He will no doubt be a permanent fixture alongside fellow centre back Eliaquim Mangala & Ali Ahamada. A dead cert for October & the Summer (if the side qualify).
Club Side: Montpellier Hérault Sport Club
Appearances So Far: 7
One of the stand-out performers for club & country during the qualification period. The classy midfielder picked up his first Ligue 1 title last year with surprise champions Montpellier HSC thanks to his performances along with those of Younès Belhanda & Olivier Giroud being the main reason for the minnow side’s success. Although his club side have made a poor start to the current campaign Cabella’s performances continue to sparkle bagging a couple of goals along the way. His scintillating form has been carried over to international level as well as his performances have been of a man of the match level on a regular basis. The Montpellier man managed to net a handful of goals during the qualification period as well as scoring a delightful chip in a friendly match against Chile earlier in the month. He is the real deal & is one of those players that has the potential to set a game a light. What ever level he plays at he’s an absolute joy to watch. Cabella will almost certainly be in the squad come October but Eric Mombaerts may well have to fend off Dider Deschamps who would be wise look at the youngster for a call up to the senior squad sooner rather than later.
Club Side: Olympique Lyonnais
Appearances So Far: 7
The product of the Lyon academy has found himself very much in first team plans within Remi Garde’s ever improving side. Although yet to bag a goal so far this season he’s been lively & looked to be a threat at times. His combination play with Lisandro Lopez & Bafetimbi Gomes seems to be clicking & he may well stake a claim for more starts through out the season. He’s often criticised for trying to do to much with the ball but does have a genuine eye for goal. This sort of selfishness will disappear within time & when it does Lacazette will become an more well rounded player. With that said his form for the Under 21′s has been impressive. Contributing with goals along the way the Les Gones wide man has looked lively in all 7 games he has been involved in. Certainly a big part of this side & will no doubt start in October against Norway. With this being his last youth tournament he will be hoping for some good performances from here till the Summer to hopefully catch the eye of senior boss Deschamps.
Club Side: AS Saint-Etienne
Appearances So Far: 7
Much like Lacazette, Josuha Guilavogui will be hoping that he leaves the youth ranks behind with a bang. The Saint-Etienne midfield had a very solid qualifying period scoring twice & appearing in all but 1 of the 8 games. This mixed with a good start to the season for his club, appearing in all 6 games & contributing with 2 goals Guilavogui looks to have all but booked his place on the plane next Summer. With that said it will be down to himself & his team mates to perform in the play off’s & all the early signs point to Guilavogui & the rest of the squad being more than capable. A solid member of the set up that will no doubt be valued by the manager & team mates a like.
Club Side: FC Sochaux-Montbeliard
Appearances So Far: 6
Under 21 captain & leader Sebastien Corchia has a bright future ahead. Following his move from Le Mans in 2011 the 21 year old has appeared 28 times for Sochaux including 5 starts so far this season in Ligue 1. His contribution going forward is nearly as important as his defensive duties providing several assists for club & country. He is also gifted when it comes to striking a free-kick as he demonstrated against Romania in qualifying. A very competitive young man that is a sensible choice to lead his side out not only in the play off’s but hopefully in finals & up the stairs to collect the silverware. Future club captain & full international no doubt.
Club Side: Real Sociedad
Appearances So Far: 5
It almost seems like Griezmann has been around for years following his move to the Spanish side Real Sociedad way back in 2005 but the 21 year old had to bind his time before breaking into the senior squad. He’s now a first team regular in La Liga & is often a threat coming inside from wide positions. Although the youngster can be frustrating when it comes to his end product he is a player that can tilt a game in a heart beat. It makes him unpredictable but an essential creative element within this French squad. Playing at this level has certainly helped Griezmann featuring 5 times & chipping in with 2 goals as well as putting in mature performances in all of his appearances. He will no doubt be in the squad come October but must keep up his form as there are several French based rivals pushing for places.
The first hurdle, as stated earlier for Mombarets & his boys is Norway & lessons must be learnt from the final game of qualifying against Slovakia. Concentration must be 100% if the side want to book their place in the 2013 finals. If Les Bleus do manage to navigate their way past the play off’s the reality of them taking home the trophy is genuinely high. Their performance in the Under 19′s competition was solid but this group of youngster are of an extremely high standard. Almost all of the squad are regulars for their club sides & in some cases important players for their teams. Not many other countries can boast such an impressive line up other than obvious favourites Spain & maybe England. There is always a lot of expectation on any French side to do well, especially at youth level but the current batch seem more than capable of it, displaying on several occasions a level of maturity that even the senior side lacks on a regular basis. If success is obtained then it may be hard to play down expectations ahead of Brazil 2014 as these stars of tomorrow break into the senior squad.
As always you can follow me on Twitter. All information & statistics were collected from various sources but mainly Ligue1.com & UEFA.com. The play-off’s for the UEFA European Under-21 Championship start on 12th October & the main tournament in Israel starts on 5th June & runs until the 18th. The draw for the finals will be held on 28th November. For any more information head over to UEFA’s website.