After a dramatic strike from Dimitri Payet clinched an opening win over Romania, host France will look to seal a place in the last 16 of Euro 2016 when taking on Albania at Marseille’s Stade Velodrome on Wednesday. And coach Didier Deschamps will surely be looking for a less stressful evening than he had on opening night of the championship last Friday.
France struggled unexpectedly to find its rhythm against Romania. Even after going ahead through Olivier Giroud, the favorite for the competition was soon pegged back by a Romanian penalty. In the end, it took something special to seal the three points and relieve some of the burden of expectation. Payet, who provided an outstanding performance in a match where those were few and far between for France, curled in a wonderful goal to mark himself out as an unlikely talisman for the host country.
Deschamps still has some interesting selection decisions to make for Game 2, though. With his team struggling against Romania, the man who captained France to World Cup glory on home soil in 1998 made two bold substitutions, taking off two men who many had down to be stars of the tournament: Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann.
While he did not go into details about his possible starting lineup, Deschamps did make clear that he would be looking for an improved performance at a venue he called home during five years as a Marseille player.
“I would like us to control things a little better and for us to get the ball up the pitch a bit quicker,” he said in his pre-match press conference. “Romania did a lot of pressing up front and shut down space and, at times, we took some risks, and we weren't sharp. Obviously the quicker and more fluid you are, the better it is for us.”
A victory Wednesday would give Deschamps’ side the luxury of reaching the knockout phase with a game to spare. But France should not take anything for granted against Albania. In two friendly matches between the sides played during the qualification phase for Euro 2016, Albania secured a draw in Rennes before winning 1-0 in the reverse meeting a year ago.
Albania showed it was capable of upsetting the big teams when it beat Portugal 1-0 en route to qualifying for its first major tournament, though there was some disappointment that Albania’s debut at Euro 2016 didn’t go as well as it would have hoped.
After conceding a goal to Switzerland in the first five minutes, Albania’s captain and most experienced player, Lorik Cana, was sent off for two yellow cards before halftime. Yet, Albania still had chances to equalize — most notably when Shkelzen Gashi was denied late on.
“We played quite well against Switzerland and blew an opportunity to score,” coach Gianni de Biasi said ahead of the meeting with France. “For the best part of an hour, we held firm against a good side with a better FIFA ranking than us. We have worked on trying to find the right balance and want put into action everything we have done in training.”
Prediction: The loss of Cana’s leadership — though he showed little of it against Switzerland — will be a blow. But it's not likely there will be any surprises from Albania, with De Biasi setting his team up to keep things tight at the back and take its chances with direct counterattacks. If France plays like it did for most of the game against Romania, then it could be frustrated for some time. But with the boost of an opening win, the host should be more fluid and go on to secure a comfortable win.
Predicted score: France 2-0 Albania
Kickoff Time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN (U.S.), TF1 (France), SuperSport 2 Digitalb, Top Channel Albania (Albania)