France will make the short hop across the border for the UEFA Under-21 European Championship with the hope rather than expectation of becoming the country’s first continental winners at this age group since 1988.
Despite their success at senior international level, which has largely been credited to the prodigious number of young players coming through their academies, France have a surprisingly horrendous record at youth level, of which the Under-20s exit in the World Cup to the USA was testimony to.
At U21 level, it is even poorer, however. This will be their first appearance at a European finals since 2006, and just their second since finishing third in 1996.
Underwhelming they may often be at this level, but there is little doubt of the raw talent, despite the likes of Ousmane Dembele, Kingsley Coman, Tanguy Ndombele and Benjamin Pavard given the summer off, while Lucas Hernandez and Martin Terrier nurse injury problems.
Already the squad possesses numerous household names, but here are five who finished the 2018-19 season strongly and will seek to impress in Italy.
Houssem Aouar (£1.69) – Lyon
Much was expected of Aouar with Lyon last season, yet for long periods he struggled to live up to the hype. There is little doubt that he was a victim of Nabil Fekir’s on-off deal to Liverpool, with the ultimate breakdown of that move preventing the 20-year-old from being handed the creative keys to the side that appeared anointed to him. Instead, he was left to play in a variety of midfield roles, which he did adequately but not to his formidable potential. By the end of the campaign, though, he had finally hit his stride, showing why Pep Guardiola among others is among his admirers. Adroit in possession and busy out of it, he should be a key player for the French.
Colin Dagba (£0.52) – PSG
The second-youngest member of the squad, Colin Dagba would not have expected to have played as regularly this season as he did with PSG. The 20-year-old turned out 22 times for the Parc des Princes club and his reputation as capable cover for Dani Alves and Thomas Meunier, who spent long periods of the campaign laid up injured, rapidly grew. He returned two assists in 17 Ligue 1 appearances. Although head coach Thomas Tuchel regularly called up academy players into his matchday squads, Dagba was one of a select handful to genuinely win the trust of the coach. With Tuchel staying on, expect to see more of this defensive prospect, who can also play on the left, in the months to come.
Moussa Dembele (£1.46) – Lyon
Moussa Dembele’s first Ligue 1 season was an unqualified success as he plundered 15 goals and laid on five more as Lyon qualified for the Champions League thanks to a third-placed finish. Indeed, the only puzzle was why the 22-year-old forward was not more regularly used by head coach Bruno Genesio. The answer may lie in that he does not have the reputation of a Memphis Depay or a Nabil Fekir, but there can be little doubt that the former Celtic man outperformed both over the course of a coming-of-age season. With 20 U21 caps, he is France’s most experienced player at this level, and he has 11 of the 24 goals this squad has to its name. A strong showing in Italy will surely only heighten links to Manchester United.
Jonathan Ikone (£1.08) – Lille
Pushed into the shade by the exploits of Nicolas Pepe and, to a lesser extent, U21 colleague Jonathan Bamba, Jonathan Ikone started the Ligue 1 season facing criticism that he was neither consistent nor decisive enough. It was criticism that was not unfounded, yet by the end of the term he had answered back to his critics on both fronts. At Christmas, he had just a single goal and two assists to his name; in the second half of the season, he mustered two goals and seven assists, notably elevating his level. It was a cheeky ‘Panenka’ free kick pass to Loic Remy – the goal that sealed Lille’s place in the Champions League – that really caught the eye, highlighting the confidence of the former PSG youth. While he could still refine his finishing, there is no doubt he is playing the best – and steadiest – football of his career.
Jeff Reine-Adelaide (£0.83) – Angers
On the face of things, Jeff Reine-Adelaide’s statistics do not make impressive reading: from 35 Ligue 1 appearances last season, he scored three goals and created three more. Ironically, it was when he was moved out of Angers’ attacking line by head coach Stephane Moulin that he began to excel. Utilised, instead, as a dynamic central midfielder, he seemed to revel in the pressure being off him to deliver decisively. It may be that this becomes his role in the long term, with Lille looking to make a move for the former Arsenal youth this summer. The 21-year-old still has much to prove but is finally starting to make good on his promise.