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A depleted leadership and new-look defense make Mbappe’s France vulnerable at Euros

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JEROME PUGMIRE

Leadership never used to be an issue for France.

Les Bleus lined up at major tournaments with a designated leader in each position: Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, defender Raphaël Varane, midfielder Paul Pogba and forward Antoine Griezmann.

They played together at every major tournament from 2014 onward, with the exception of the 2022 World Cup which Pogba missed because of ongoing right knee problems. As well as being top-level players, the foursome ensured a vocal presence in each area of the field.

Only Griezmann remains.

The long-serving captain Lloris and Varane have retired from international soccer and Pogba — who scored in the 2018 World Cup final win — has seen his career plummet.

Once so inspirational, Pogba was banned for four years by Italy’s anti-doping court this year after testing positive for testosterone. Being without Lloris, Varane and Pogba deprives coach Didier Deschamps of a combined 329 international matches.

At least he still has Griezmann for the European Championship.

The 33-year-old Griezmann was voted the best French player playing abroad, beating Real Madrid midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni and Arsenal defender William Saliba.

Griezmann scored a hat trick for Atletico Madrid on May 15 and enjoyed his best season for goals at club level since 2018, the year he scored in the World Cup final along with Kylian Mbappé.

Mbappé has been France’s captain since Lloris retired from Les Bleus. But in the minds of many observers Griezmann — an ever-present under Deschamps — is the natural leader.

But the support he needs from the rest of an uneven lineup remains in flux. New bodies have replaced Lloris, Varane and Pogba in the lineup but not their authority. Not yet, anyway.

At least scoring shouldn’t be a problem.

Griezmann’s passing, shooting ability and 44 international goals provide extra ammunition to go with Mbappé’s considerable firepower.

Mbappé is arguably the tournament’s biggest scoring threat. He already has 46 international goals and after friendly games against Luxembourg and Canada he may be closer to Thierry Henry’s tally of 51. Olivier Giroud is France’s all-time leader with 57 goals but the 37-year-old striker is no longer a guaranteed starter in his last international tournament.

Meanwhile, the uncapped Bradley Barcola offers a speedy threat from the left wing.

“He has the ability to make a difference,” Deschamps said.

As for stopping goals …

It’s the first time Deschamps enters a major tournament without the reassuring presence of Lloris. AC Milan’s Mike Maignan should start a major tournament as the No. 1 goalie for the first time, although he is nursing a finger injury.

France has conceded six goals in the past three matches, including one conceded after just seven seconds against Germany in March.

The way France conceded that goal so casually angered Deschamps, who is also without defender Lucas Hernandez after he ruptured his left ACL. With Presnel Kimpembe still not match fit, this gives Saliba a chance to impose himself at international level.

Saliba was outstanding for Arsenal as they finished a narrow second behind Manchester City in a thrilling English Premier League title race.

He could form a partnership alongside Liverpool’s Ibrahima Konaté. But they have only 27 international caps between them and France’s defense could find itself exposed again against strong attacks.

Thankfully for Deschamps, the midfield looks solid.

Real Madrid duo Eduardo Camavinga and Tchouaméni enjoyed successful seasons, and Adrien Rabiot played well for Juventus despite the club’s mediocre form.

Deschamps surprised observers by calling up N’Golo Kanté even though he has not played for Les Bleus for two years, and plays outside of Europe’s top leagues at Saudi Arabian club Al-Ittihad.

“When you have a squad which is much younger (than before) it’s important to have players that you know well and who have experience of the very highest level,” Deschamps said. “He has a certain stature, which counts.”

Kanté’s tireless running and ability to read the game quickly may offer welcome protection for the defense.

HISTORY

France’s two European Championship victories featured the brilliance of midfield greats Michel Platini in 1984 and Zinedine Zidane in 2000. Both had superb technique, speed of vision and a surgical eye for goal.

At Euro 2021, Les Bleus went out on penalties to Switzerland in the round of 16 after leading 3-1. Mbappé missed the decisive penalty in the shootout.

GROUP D

France faces Austria on June 17 in Düsseldorf, followed by the Netherlands four days later in Leipzig, and Poland on June 25 in Dortmund’s BVB Stadion.

AP

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