France and Germany will take to the Stade de France pitch on Friday, hoping to take another step toward being back there in seven months’ time for the final of Euro 2016. As hosts of the competition, France will be under intense pressure to go all the way on home soil and land their first international silverware since Euro 2000. While for this generation of German talent it will be the first time they will go into a tournament as the team to beat, having taken home the World Cup last year.
France have not had to go through qualification for the European Championship, but their preparations of late have been far from smooth. Notable by their absence from the squad to take on Germany, and England next Tuesday, are Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena. Real Madrid striker Benzema is under investigation by French authorities in connection with an alleged attempt to blackmail Lyon midfielder Valbuena over an alleged sex video.
Coach Didier Deschamps has insisted the focus remain on the upcoming matches, however captain Hugo Lloris conceded the situation is far from ideal.
“I am a little bit surprised and sad,” he said, reports the London Evening Standard. “They are two major elements of the selection and two likeable people. It is delicate and surprising to see them in this kind of situation, but they know they have our support and that we think of them."
“We hope that justice will do the job and especially the situation calms down around this story. The non-sport sometimes takes over what may happen on the ground and a little more importance so it is unfortunate. It's a shame but we must live with that.”
The duo’s absence leaves a significant hole and provides a major concern ahead of next summer. Valbuena has appeared in all eight of France’s matches so far in 2015, but his form on the pitch appears to have been negatively impacted by the ongoing legal case. Benzema, meanwhile, is the talisman of the team, and scored three times at the 2014 World Cup.
Their exclusion has opened the door for two notable returns to the France fold. Up front, there is a place for André-Pierre Gignac, who made the last of his appearances for his country 12 months ago and admitted that he thought his international career was likely over when he joined Mexican club Tigres this summer.
Perhaps even more notable, though, is a return from the international wilderness of Hatem Ben Arfa. The 28-year-old has not played for France since Euro 2012 and spent the first half of this year without a club after being released from his contract at Newcastle United. But since returning to France with Nice, he has made a major return to form, scoring seven goals in his first 13 Ligue Un appearances for his new club.
The theme of international returns is also present in Germany’s squad. The most notable inclusion in Joachim Löw’s party is that of Mario Gomez. The striker has made just one international outing in the past two years after an injury-ravaged spell with Serie A side Fiorentina. But the 30-year-old has returned to form in Turkey, where he is on loan with Beşiktaş, scoring eight goals in 11 league outings.
“It’s hard to make an assessment just from training sessions, but I saw Mario in Turkey, and he has had a big impact there, scoring several goals in the league,” Löw said, according to the German Football Association’s (DFB) website. “He has been unbelievably motivated since the World Cup to be able to go the Euros.”
Gomez’s presence means Germany have a true recognized striker at their disposal, having gone through qualifying largely without one. And the road to France wasn’t as smoot as many anticipated, having had to wait until their final match against Georgia last month to clinch a berth in Euro 2016.
And like France, Germany has recently had their own controversy off the pitch, with the president of the DFB, Wolgang Niersbach, resigning earlier this week over a payment to FIFA that was allegedly used to bribe officials to vote for the country to host the 2006 World Cup.
D: Sagna, Varance, Koscielny, Evra
M: Pogba, Diarra, Matuidi
F: Griezmann, Giroud, Martial
D: Rüdiger, Boateng, Hummels, Hector
M: Khedira, Schweinsteiger
Müller, Gündoğan, Draxler
Kickoff time: 3 p.m. EST
Live stream: ESPN3