For a side that has needed late goals to win matches at the European Championship, it would seem a safe bet that France’s players are practicing penalty shootouts ahead of their quarterfinal against Iceland on Sunday.
But it would be a losing bet.
“We haven’t practiced penalties,” France right back Bacary Sagna said. “Because we’re counting on making the difference earlier.”
Earlier than the 89th winner against Romania, perhaps? Or would that be earlier than the 90th-minute breakthrough goal against Albania? How about failing to score against Switzerland, then?
More wasteful finishing against Iceland could send the game into extra time — and then the dreaded penalties.
Poland, which lost on penalty kicks to Portugal in Thursday’s quarterfinal, had back-to-back shootouts. Like the Champions League final in May between Madrid rivals Real and Atletico, big games often prompt a dramatic finale from the spot, as France knows only too well.
France lost the 2006 World Cup final against Italy in a shootout, with then coach Raymond Domenech revealing they had not practiced penalties. In 1982, West Germany beat Les Bleus in a shootout at the World Cup semifinals.
France led in both of those games, yet lost, and also lost a shootout to the Czech Republic in the semifinals at Euro ‘96.
But despite the painful memories, France’s confidence is high at this tournament.
“We have the ability to go all the way and I’m only thinking about the final,” Sagna said Friday. “I can’t see myself going on holiday so early, nor can I see myself letting the fans down ... We believe in ourselves.”
Still, he agrees with teammate Patrice Evra that France has to start dictating games, rather than relying on match-winners like attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet or forward Antoine Griezmann to come through.
“We have players who play in big clubs; most of them play in the Champions League. We have to start games better and impose ourselves,” said the Manchester City defender. “We should be ready from the off, not at halftime. We’ve had a little bit of luck (so far).”
The 33-year-old Sagna stands to win his 62nd France cap, while Evra is in line for his 78th and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris his 80th.
But despite considerable experience, France does not cope well with nerves.
“The danger in this match is the Iceland team (but) it’s also us,” Sagna said. “Because we’re capable of playing really well and (because) we’re among the favorites. Maybe we are trying too hard. Perhaps that’s holding us back.”
One thing France will not do is take Iceland lightly, as England was accused of doing in the aftermath of its shock defeat in the last 16.
“For a lot of people they are the surprise of the tournament, like the Leicester City of Euro 2016,” said Sagna, referring to the Premier League champions. “But they totally deserve to be here and have shown they can beat good teams. You can’t underestimate them.”