Host France may have already secured its progress to the knockout phase of Euro 2016, but that doesn’t mean there won’t be plenty riding on its final match of its group phase. France, fresh from victories against Romania and Albania, will take on Switzerland in Lille on Sunday requiring a point to top Group A and secure a much kinder passage through to the tournament’s latter stages.
While top spot in the group would ensure a meeting with a third-place finisher, second spot would lead to a last 16 meeting with the runner-up in Group C, which looks likely to be either Poland, or even world champion Germany. And the sticky path would not end there, with Spain currently looking likely to be the opponent that would await in the quarterfinals. This is most definitely not a tournament in which the prize of topping a group can be written off.
Those stakes, and the potential risk of choosing to rest players, only increase the intrigue into France coach Didier Deschamps’ starting lineup. Already the 1998 World Cup winning captain has attracted plenty of attention with his decision to leave out the two players expected to be the stars of France’s Euro 2016 campaign, Paul Pogba and Antoine Griezmann, last time out against Albania.
The pair had been taken off as France struggled to break down Romania in the tournament’s opening match, a decision that Deschamps could feel was vindicated after his side pulled out a 2-1 win at the death. It was a similar story against Albania. Without Pogba and Griezmann, France toiled, and it wasn’t until both men were brought on and Griezmann found the net with a header in the 90th minute that France broke the deadlock.
Still, while the changes had their impact, it was Dimitri Payet, far from a certainty to even make the squad just a few months ago, who struck a brilliant second goal for France. It would be a brave decision to now leave Payet out of the lineup, but France’s impressive strength in depth means there could still be changes elsewhere.
Having already had their rest, Griezmann and Pogba will be expected to return to the starting lineup, while full-backs Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra, aged 33 and 35, respectively, could be deputized by Christophe Jallet and Lucas Digne. In midfield, the work of N’Golo Kante has stood out, but having picked up a booking Albania Deschamps could decide it is not worth the risk of him picking up a second that would rule him out of the first knockout match. Yohan Cabaye may make his first appearance in place of the Leicester City man, while André-Pierre Gignac could step in for Olivier Giroud up front.
Switzerland don’t have anything like the same luxury of such a strong squad. And coach Vladimir Petkovic would be unlikely to take any chances with his selection, regardless.
While a win would see Switzerland top Group A, it is not mathematically certain to be in the last 16, given a defeat could push it down into third place if Romania was to beat Albania and come out on top in the goal difference battle. With four points, Switzerland would almost certainly be one of the best four third-place teams, regardless. Still, that scenario would leave the Swiss having to face a group winner in the second round.
Even ignoring those permutations, Petkovic will be eager for his side to find the kind of rhythm that has been absent from its first two performances. Against the 10 men of Albania for more than 45 minutes, Switzerland still only just got over the line in a 1-0 victory. Against Romania on Wednesday, it required a fine equalizer from Admir Mehmedi to secure a point.
Petkovic must fight the sense that Switzerland is a team that has gone backward since the 2014 World Cup, when it entered the tournament as one of the top two seeds under veteran coach Ottmar Hitzfeld. Even at that World Cup, in which Switzerland bowed out to Argentina in the last 16, Switzerland was swept away by France 5-2 in the group stage.
Prediction: Neither team has greatly impressed so far, but it is France that possesses the individual quality to prosper even when the team as a whole isn’t functioning as desired. While France has got match-winning performances from Payet, and should have Griezmann in better spirits after his goal, Switzerland has got very little from its creative star Xherdan Shaqiri. Even if there are changes from Deschamps, France should be good enough to get the win.
Predicted score: France 2-1 Switzerland
Kickoff Time: 3 p.m. EDT
TV Channel: ESPN
Live Stream: Watch ESPN