France have the tranquility of knowing they are safely through to the last 16 regardless of the result against Portugal on Wednesday, Didier Deschamps contentedly revealed. Despite his protestations, they also have the motive, opportunity and weapons to deny that luxury to the reigning European champions at the Puskas Arena.
The France manager rejected the theory that his players will be motivated by the thought of potentially eliminating a major rival, and the team that denied them the Euro 2016 title on home soil, before the knockout stages have started. Winning, building confidence and gathering momentum are incentive enough for the world champions, Deschamps argued. But they know. Hugo Lloris, the captain, mentioned at least four times in his press conference that “the stakes are higher for the Portuguese”.
Fernando Santos’s side need a positive result to progress. A second successive group defeat would make them reliant on a best third-place finish to prevent the ignominy of an early exit. “We can’t forget about Hungary,” the Portugal manager said on Tuesday. That is true: should Marco Rossi’s team stun Germany in Munich and the world champions prevail over the European champions in Budapest, Portugal could finish bottom.
“Our goal is to achieve the best possible result with all the consequences that goes with it for the group,” Deschamps said. “What happens to Portugal then I don’t know. We concentrate on ourselves.
“If we had six points now I would have the same thoughts about the game because a negative result would have the same impact. Today we have the insurance of being qualified already and that gives us a kind of tranquility, but that doesn’t change how we play the game.
“I’ve been thinking about this match since the last one finished. We owe it to ourselves and the French people to give the best possible performance tomorrow. The round of 16 is a new competition but the more confidence we have raised from the beginning of the competition the better it will be going into it.”
It is not merely a heavyweight finale with the possibility of a knockout blow that provides the intrigue in Budapest. Two of the finest strikers in the world will be on display in Cristiano Ronaldo, who is two goals from equalling the international record of 109 set by Iran’s Ali Daei, and Kylian Mbappé, who is yet to score at a European Championship but has produced flashes of brilliance in his two outings. Ronaldo’s three goals confirm he is not yet ready to pass the baton to the next great thing in the France No 10 shirt. The supporting cast around both players heightens the anticipation, and hopefully the spectacle.
“I wouldn’t like to compare our attacking lines,” Santos said. “It’s not three v three, it’s 11 v 11. France have an amazing team. France don’t only have the attacking players, they have midfielders like N’Golo [Kanté], [Paul] Pogba and [Adrien] Rabiot who are all amazing. They go after every ball, they always play on the red line. France is a full team. Of course we have all heard of Mbappé, [Antoine] Griezmann and [Karim] Benzema. I rate all of their starting XI very highly but we’re not worse than they are.
“We have very good defensive players, very good midfielders and attacking players. The crucial element to the game is to balance the team. It’s not about the best or the worst. Every single team on Earth can be aggressive and supportive of one another. We know France will play like this. We need to fight more, we need to want it more and be more organised than they are. If we put our quality out there and they do the same it can swing either way.”
There will be a wealth of decorated experience on display. Mbappé was three years old when Pepe enjoyed his first season as a professional with Maritimo’s B-team. The Porto defender, now 38 and a veteran of 117 appearances for Portugal, is not unnerved at the challenge of containing a lightning forward 16 years his junior.
“I love what I do, I love football,” said Pepe on the secret of his longevity. “I feel blessed to be able to do what I like most. Every day I get up and do it with a smile on my face.”
The high stakes will suit Pepe. “We need to be what we always are,” he added. “A very combative team. We are going to progress to the next stage by doing what we’ve shown over the past years. The last match wasn’t great, it’s true, but we have a chance to prove the naysayers wrong. Over the last few years we’ve shown that Portugal have good quality players who work together. That’s what has made us a very respected team in Europe.”