After a glorious qualifying campaign, France have high hopes of reaching next summer's UEFA Under-21 European Championship in Israel – they will have to overcome Norway in the play-offs first.
Les Bleuets have not reached the final tournament at this level since their run to the last four in 2006 and they finished third in their five-team qualifying group for the last edition in 2011. However, a virtually faultless run this time around means they look well-placed to end that sorry record, even if coach Eric Mombaerts admitted to being taken aback by their success so far.
"I was a little surprised because we had an exceptional run, which we should have kept going to the end as there was a slight lack of motivation which our Slovak friends took advantage of," said Mombaerts, whose team registered seven successive Group 9 wins before losing 2-1 in Slovakia with a play-off berth already secured. "To pick up win after win in a qualifying group is never easy, and we were able to do it."
Life promises to be harder still against Norway. Per Joar Hansen's squad were particularly impressive on their travels, winning in Iceland and Belgium to clinch runners-up spot behind England in Group 8. Not that that will daunt France ahead of the first leg in Caen on 12 October having won all four home games in qualifying without conceding.
Les Bleuets' success in qualifying was largely based on their parsimonious defence, which conceded just twice in the group stage. However, centre-backs Raphaël Varane and Eliaquim Mangala also chipped in with two goals apiece, and the side's 19 goals came from 11 different scorers. Mombaerts' men are a epitome of the new ethic being put in place at the French Football Federation (FFF).
"Our philosophy is clear: we have to impose our style of play, our identity, and we have to win with that," said Mombaerts, who assumed the reins from René Girard in 2008. "We will never sacrifice this philosophy, at least that's the train of thought right now. Our players have to try to win, whoever they're playing and regardless of whether they're at home or away."
They have twin ambitions: to follow in the footsteps of the likes Eric Cantona and Laurent Blanc, part of France's 1988 UEFA Under-21 European Championship-winning side, and use the experience as a stepping stone to the senior side. "I think we can achieve both," explained the coach. "A player for the future is a player should be used to the international arena, to must-win matches." October will provide ample practice.
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