SAINT-DENIS, France (AP) France coach Didier Deschamps has a dilemma in defense for the European Championship quarterfinal against Iceland on Sunday.
With Adil Rami being suspended, he must pick either untested Samuel Umtiti or the out-of-form Eliaquim Mangala to partner Laurent Koscielny at center half.
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Umtiti has never played for France, while Mangala did not feature in any pre-tournament warmup matches and he has looked low on confidence in training.
Before the competition started, Deschamps faced serious problems in central defense. He lost Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane, Chelsea’s Kurt Zouma and Barcelona’s Jeremy Mathieu to injury – while Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho was suspended for a doping violation at the time Deschamps named his squad.
Varane and Sakho both played at the World Cup two years ago, thus robbing Deschamps of valuable experience at Euro 2016.
The 22-year-old Umtiti is soon expected to complete a move from Lyon to Barcelona. If selected, it will be a massive game for him against rugged Iceland.
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“They have two tall strikers who have a lot of presence, they are athletic and strong,” Deschamps told a news conference on Saturday. “I can’t make my players taller by adding a few centimeters. It’s a question of being strong in the challenges and paying close attention to the second ball.”
Deschamps initially left Umtiti out of his squad, penciling him in as a reserve and then only calling him up because of injuries.
Lyon finished bottom of its group in last season’s Champions League and Umtiti was criticized for a spate of poor performances.
Whilst not revealing who will start the game, Deschamps talked up Umtiti’s ability.
“If he’s joining (Barcelona) it’s not down to luck,” Deschamps said. “He passes well from the back; he’s strong in the challenge and has what it takes to play at the highest level.”
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The 25-year-old Mangala, who has played seven times for France, joined Manchester City from Porto for 31.9 million pounds ($42.3 million) two years ago.
But he has yet to hold down a regular place.
At 1.88 meters (6-foot-2) and weighing 84 kilograms (185 pounds), Mangala is taller and stronger than Umtiti – who is 1.80 meters (5-foot-11) and weighs nearly 10 kilograms (22 pounds) less.
Although that seems to make Mangala the better choice given Iceland’s physical threat, Deschamps appears to have limited faith in the player and has not selected him since October.
Whoever plays at Stade de France might seek reassurance from goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, the captain, and right back Bacary Sagna.
Both are very experienced.
“I have a lot of responsibility to show young players the way forward,” said the 29-year-old Lloris, who stands to win his 80th cap. “I have to get the right message across to them.”
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Sagna, who has 61 caps, added that “communication will be the key to the match” considering France’s new-look back four.
France must also deal with the threat from Iceland midfielder Aron Gunnarsson‘s long throws.
“From 35 or 40 meters out it’s like a free kick for them,” Deschamps said. “We’ve been working on that this week.”
Should the game be decided by a penalty shootout, picking France’s five takers might give Deschamps another headache.
France has not been practicing penalty kicks.
“I’ve never done it,” Deschamps said. “For the simple reason that taking penalties, when you’re relaxed in training, is no comparison to what you are going to experience after 120 minutes, in front of a full stadium.”