With the 2016 UEFA European Championship now over, beaten finalists France can turn their attention towards the 2018 FIFA World Cup in Russia.
Les Bleus qualified automatically for this summer’s tournament as hosts and will need to advance from Group A, which features the Netherlands, Sweden, Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg, if they want to go to eastern Europe in two years’ time.
As far as qualifying groups go, this one should not be too difficult to navigate.
The Dutch failed to qualify for Euro 2016, while Sweden—who left France without a single player scoring a goal—are a much less daunting task minus the recently retired Zlatan Ibrahimovic.
Bulgaria, Belarus and Luxembourg all have the potential to make things difficult for the French, but on paper at least, the 1998 champions should reach Russia comfortably.
With their qualifying group known, the next question facing France was who will lead the team for the duration of the campaign. Coach Didier Deschamps has already confirmed that he will be in charge until the end of the 2018 World Cup.
Speaking shortly after last Sunday’s disappointing 1-0 defeat in extra time to Portugal in the Euro 2016 final, the 47-year-old tactician revealed he will stay on with the squad in a decision that was taken before the Stade de France showpiece, as reported by ESPN FC’s Mark Rodden.
“Yes, I'm staying,” Deschamps said. “It was planned that way. I am not going to think about myself. I will need time to digest everything. The players are going to start again at their clubs. I am going to analyse things with my staff and we will start again on what is waiting for us in two years.”
On the whole, Deschamps remaining at the helm for qualification and—presumably—the finals afterwards is the right decision.
The former Olympique de Marseille boss did make some questionable decisions during Euro 2016, but he ultimately guided the team to a deep run on home soil, and a berth in the final arguably exceeded pre-tournament expectations.
Deschamps’ inability to settle on a starting XI until the latter stages this summer is arguably the biggest criticism that can be levelled at him.
It is true that the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000-winning former captain did play around with his squad a little too often in the group stage and into the round of 16.
However, it is worth bearing in mind that France lost Karim Benzema, Raphael Varane and Mamadou Sakho before the tournament began, and all three are normally key players under Deschamps.
Although the absence of Benzema was expected, the losses of Varane and Sakho were not and meant the French coach had to construct a new central-defensive partnership consisting of Laurent Koscielny and Adil Rami—the Sevilla man was not even part of the squad initially.
Had Deschamps had all of his players available for selection pre-tournament, then his final squad and regular starting XI would have looked different to the one we saw this summer.
Aside from those selection issues, the man from Bayonne can be challenged on his substitutions in the final.
Deschamps opted to start the hardworking but technically limited Moussa Sissoko and replaced Dimitri Payet, Olivier Giroud and the Newcastle United man with Kingsley Coman, Andre-Pierre Gignac and Anthony Martial over the 120 minutes played at the Stade de France.
The result was a 1-0 defeat to a 109th-minute strike from Portugal substitute Eder, and Deschamps does have to shoulder his part of the blame for that loss. However, the players were also at fault for allowing complacency to slip in after Cristiano Ronaldo was forced off injured early on.
Also influential in the defeat to the Portuguese was the fact that France only had two days to rest between their semi-final win over Germany, while Fernando Santos’ men had three.
Overall, dismissing Deschamps on the back of the defeat to Portugal would have been unjustified—especially as Les Bleus were not expected to go all the way before the tournament began.
The former Juventus tactician still managed to guide his country to the final, and had Gignac’s late chance gone in and not come back off the post, he would be being celebrated for masterminding a Euro victory on home soil.
Deschamps is the right man to lead the French to Russia 2018 because there has been clear progress made since he took over back in 2012.
After a poor Euro 2012 campaign under Laurent Blanc ended in controversy, Deschamps was appointed and rebuilt the squad minus a number of bad influences.
They came close to not making it at all, but France did ultimately make it to Brazil in 2014, and once there, they went all the way to the quarter-finals.
Two years later, Les Bleus went two steps further than they did in South America and reached the final.
The results from these first two international tournaments under Deschamps—as well as the fact that he has persuaded the French public to get behind their national team once again after years of apathy toward their players—make a convincing case for him to stay on as coach.
On top of that, assuming there are no major controversies and no players get badly injured, Deschamps should have the likes of Benzema, Varane and Sakho available for selection once again, and he should be able to tackle qualification with what he sees as his strongest team.
Had Benzema been eligible for Euro 2016 selection, Deschamps would have picked him, and both Varane and Sakho would have featured heavily, too.
As well as those returning talents, France also have a large number of excellent young players emerging and Deschamps has done a good job of bringing them through so far.
In another two years’ time, the likes of Aymeric Laporte, Adrien Rabiot and Ousmane Dembele should be featuring at senior level.
Deschamps’ time in charge has been successful so far, and even though defeat to Portugal in the final was disappointing, Euro 2016 had already exceeded expectations by the time they got to Stade de France.
The team has shown clear signs of growth in the four years that Deschamps has been in charge, and the chances are they will do so again in Russia after this summer’s progress.
Crucially, though, expectations will be higher in 2018, and Deschamps will probably be tasked with bringing the World Cup trophy back to France.