The images pinned in the gymnasium where the French players sit down to talk summon up great days in the storied history of the footballing nation.
Aime Jacquet, clutching the trophy in 1998; Thierry Henry, winner that year and also a 2006 finalist; Michel Platini, legend of the great 1980s team.
Becoming the first nation to win back-to-back World Cups since Brazil in 1962 would be some addition to that gallery, though 72 hours out from the clash with old English foes, the questions the players fielded yesterday betrayed a distinct anxiety about the strength of Gareth Southgate‘s team.
Questions that French players fielded in Thursday’s press conference betray a distinct anxiety about the strength of Gareth Southgate’s England ahead of their World Cup quarter-final clash
Les Bleus face the Three Lions at the Al Bayt Stadium with a spot in the last four on the line
L’Equipe began the week with a piece about English writers’ obsession with Kylian Mbappe, who trained here on Thursday, and Kyle Walker’s insistence that he would not ‘roll out the red carpet’ for the 23-year-old had certainly struck a chord.
‘Hats off to him (Walker) if he can stop Kylian,’ the midfielder Youssouf Fofana said when the Manchester City defender’s remarks were quoted.
‘There are 19 other teams in the French league who are waiting for an answer to that and the truth is on the pitch. Personally, as a Frenchman, we will believe in Kylian.’
Centre back Dayot Upamecano did not venture into a discussion on how he played in RB Leipzig’s 5-0 defeat by Manchester United two years ago, on a night when Marcus Rashford — who will start on the bench for Southgate tomorrow — scored a hat-trick.
The French players fielded several questions on how the England bench is stronger than their own. ‘That’s up to people to give their opinion,’ Upamecano said. ‘It’s not forbidden. It’s up to us to show the opposite. Until the match has happened, there will always be something to say.’
England’s Kyle Walker was asked about how he might stop star forward Kylian Mbappe (left)
But France clearly fear England defender Harry Maguire (top) and his powerful heading ability
Upamecano said he was perfectly aware of England’s forward, who he’ll be up against.
‘I know the way he plays. He is a forward who comes to find the ball and can really fast so we have to be really careful and watch for that. We will be ready.’
As so often on these choreographed occasions, there was a substantial amount of surface gloss to all this, players neither wanting to hint at the kind of disrespect which motivate an opponent, nor wanting to appear too deferential.
Upamecano spoke of the ‘geographic’ rivalry of an English nation who are ‘our neighbours,’ and with whom he felt the French share a commonality in culture.
Yet behind the veneer, there is a concern about an English player the French nation seems to hold in more respect than we do.
Harry Maguire is seen by France as the embodiment of the set piece threat which France feel is to be feared in their opponents. No country has scored more than England from the dead ball at this World Cup and Maguire is the country’s fourth top scorer in the Gareth Southgate era.
Dayot Upamecano fielded a few questions on how England’s bench is stronger than France’s
And there are also worries about captain and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris’ penalty-saving prowess
Harry Maguire is seen by France as the embodiment of the set-piece threat which they feel is to be feared in their opponents. L’Equipe analysed yesterday how ‘one of the great English strengths is the screen’ — a player blocking a defender’s run towards Maguire from the set-piece, allowing the Manchester United player a free header.
It demonstrated how upper-body strength allows him to have an impact even when in contact with another player. Dealing with the screen entails not getting too tight on Maguire, and focusing on him can create opportunities for others.
Maguire still hasn’t scored at this World Cup but the 6ft 1in Fofana was under no illusions. ‘It’s important to defend the England set-pieces well,’ he said. ‘We will talk about that today in training.’
There are more reasons for French anxiety. Many do not consider Lloris a man for the penalty shootout, which is why so few in France want tomorrow’s game to extend to such a reckoning. The hope is simply that Mbappe can just get the job done.
‘Kylian is somebody who doesn’t really read the press,’ Fofana said. ‘He is more focused on what the team are going to do and what he has to do, than the teams he is going to face.’
So how, exactly, do you defend against him, Fofana was asked. ‘It’s difficult,’ he replied. ‘You have to go to bed early.’