5 key talking points as Wales target Six Nations victory over France

By Sports Desk March 09, 2024

Wales will target a first win of their Guinness Six Nations campaign when they tackle France in Cardiff on Sunday.

Warren Gatland’s team have lost all three matches in this season’s tournament so far, but they host a French side struggling for form.

Here, the PA news agency looks at some key talking points ahead of the game.

A big chance for Wales

Recent history does not favour Wales, having lost their last four Six Nations games against France, although two of those defeats were by just four points. But they have a golden opportunity to end that sequence, taking on a team that saw title hopes effectively extinguished by Ireland on opening night, before edging past Scotland and then being held to a draw at home by Italy. New-look Wales have shown glimpses of promise as Gatland begins building for World Cup 2027 and victory over France would do wonders in terms of that process.

Nervy Italian job

Wales have not finished bottom of the Six Nations for 21 years, but a wooden-spoon decider beckons against Italy in Cardiff next weekend if they are beaten by France. Wales lost all five games of the 2003 tournament under Gatland’s fellow New Zealander Steve Hansen, while Italy triumphed on their last Principality Stadium visit two years ago. Worryingly for Wales, they have suffered 12 defeats from the last 14 Six Nations starts, toppling only Scotland two years ago and Italy in 2023. With two home games to come, Wales have control of their own destiny, but the margins are fine.

Winnett is a winner

Heading into the penultimate round of Six Nations fixtures, few players have made a bigger impact on the tournament than Wales full-back Cameron Winnett. With Liam Williams, Leigh Halfpenny and Louis Rees-Zammit – all previous options in the number 15 shirt – unavailable to Gatland, he turned to 21-year-old Winnett and it has proved an inspired choice. Winnett had played only 15 games of professional rugby before gaining a first Wales squad call-up, but after three Six Nations appearances he topped the statistics for metres carried and metres gained and was the highest-ranked back in terms of carries, leaving the likes of James Lowe and Duhan Van Der Merwe in his slipstream.

France’s World Cup hangover

France had to cope with huge expectation and pressure to win last year’s World Cup on home soil, but it all ended in devastating fashion through a 29-28 defeat against quarter-final opponents South Africa. They then saw mercurial captain Antoine Dupont switch to playing sevens ahead of the Paris Olympics and Les Bleus have simply not recovered during an underwhelming Six Nations campaign. Will a first loss to Wales in Cardiff since 2018 now follow? Neither team has momentum, both sides are in the table’s bottom half, yet France appear to be the ones most vulnerable.

Centres of attention

Wales boss Gatland sprung two major selection surprises ahead of facing France by omitting World Cup centres George North and Nick Tompkins. Joe Roberts makes a first Six Nations start as North’s replacement – with Owen Watkin taking over from Tompkins – and it is a decision that has divided opinion. There are those who understand the rationale at this early stage of a World Cup cycle to test an alternative midfield partnership, but others have been left baffled that two of Wales’ most consistent performers with 155 caps between them are not required on this occasion. Masterstroke or misjudgement?

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  • The Numbers Game: France face Mbappe conundrum ahead of Netherlands test The Numbers Game: France face Mbappe conundrum ahead of Netherlands test

    Both the Netherlands and France made winning, if not entirely convincing, starts at Euro 2024.

    On Friday, they face off in a heavyweight clash that could go some way to deciding who tops Group D.

    Ronald Koeman's Oranje had Wout Weghorst to thank as they fought back to beat Poland 2-1 in their opening match, and they will hope the potential absence of Kylian Mbappe gives them the upper hand in Leipzig.

    Mbappe's availability is "uncertain" after he suffered a broken nose during Les Bleus' nervy 1-0 victory over Austria, with the forward set to be fitted with a protective mask ahead of a potential return.

    How will the tournament favourites cope if Mbappe does miss out? Here, we delve into the Opta data to preview Friday's game.

    What's expected?

    Despite the question marks over Mbappe's availability, France are favourites to make it two wins from two games.

    The Opta supercomputer gives them a 52.3 per cent chance of victory to the Netherlands' 24.4 per cent, with 23.3 per cent of simulations finishing level.

    This will be the fourth time the teams have faced off at the Euros. France triumphed on penalties in the 1996 quarter-finals, but the Netherlands have since won two group-stage encounters, 3-2 in 2000 and 4-1 in 2008.

    France have, however, won seven of their last eight matches against the Oranje in all competitions, the exception being a 2-0 defeat in the UEFA Nations League in November 2018.

    If recent history is anything to go by, we should expect to get a victor. Only four of the previous 30 matches between the teams have ended in a draw, with France posting 15 victories to the Netherlands' 11.

    Excluding penalty shoot-outs, the Oranje have only lost one of their last 17 major tournament matches (World Cup/Euros), going down 2-0 to Czechia at Euro 2020 (12 wins, four draws). 

    They lost four successive games before this run began – all three group-stage matches at Euro 2012 and the 2010 World Cup final versus Spain.  

    France, meanwhile, could win their opening two games at a European Championships for the fourth time. On each of the previous occasions on which they accomplished that feat, they went on to reach the final (1984, 2000 and 2016).

    If in doubt, get Wout out

    Standing at six-foot-six and still on Burnley's books after loan spells with Besiktas, Manchester United and Hoffenheim, Weghorst may not be the personification of Johan Cruyff's 'total football' ideals.

    However, he has a real knack for being in the right place at the right time for his national team.

    Weghorst's winner against Poland came with his first touch after coming on as an 81st-minute substitute and was his fourth goal at a major tournament (World Cup/Euros).

    Three of those strikes have come as a substitute, the most goals any Oranje player has scored off the bench at tournaments.   

     

    He also has seven goals in his last 11 international appearances overall, tying Cody Gakpo and Calvin Stengs as the Netherlands' leading scorers in Euro 2024 qualifying with three. 

    He ranked eighth among all players for touches in the opposition box during qualifying (47), with six of those to beat him having played more than his 517 minutes.

    Memphis Depay started up front against Poland and flattered to deceive, failing to hit the target with any of his four shots. While he is likely to keep his place in Koeman's lineup on Friday, expect Weghorst to be introduced earlier if Depay produces a similar display.

    Didier Deschamps took some time to settle on Arsenal's William Saliba as the ideal centre-back partner for Dayot Upamecano, and the France duo may need to be prepared for an aerial bombardment. It may not be total football, but it could be effective. 

    Mbappe's absence a chance for Giroud?

    France, meanwhile, are facing up to the scenario they never wished to contemplate – having to cope without Mbappe.

    After colliding with the shoulder of Austria defender Kevin Danso on matchday one, Mbappe is a major doubt for Friday's game. On Wednesday, the president of the France Football Federation, Philippe Diallo, said it was "too soon to know" if he will play again at this tournament.

    The Netherlands will certainly be breathing a sigh of relief, having seen Mbappe score six times in five career matches against them, including his first senior international goal in August 2017. Against no other nation has Real Madrid's newest Galactico netted more often.

    However, Mbappe did attempt four shots without scoring against Austria, taking his total number of shots without scoring at the Euros to 18, the most of any Frenchman since 1980.

    Mbappe started centrally against Austria but often drifted out to the left flank, with Ousmane Dembele stationed wide on the right. Randal Kolo Muani could come in to play a similar role, or Olivier Giroud could provide more of a traditional focal point.

     

    Giroud's 57 international goals put him top of Les Bleus' all-time scoring charts, six clear of Thierry Henry. Just eight of those have come at major tournaments (one at the 2014 World Cup, three at Euro 2016, four at the 2022 World Cup), but the former Arsenal and Chelsea man has long been a crucial foil for his more mobile team-mates. 

    France have won 71.9 per cent of their games with Giroud in the starting lineup under Deschamps (64/89), compared to 57.3 per cent without him (43/75). 

    The 37-year-old, who has 16 headed goals for his country, will also have been licking his lips at the sight of the Netherlands' set-piece defending against Poland, as Adam Buksa took advantage of some lax marking to head home unopposed from a corner.

    The last three goals conceded by Koeman's team have now come from corners.

    PLAYERS TO WATCH 

    Netherlands – Cody Gakpo

    Having netted the Netherlands' equaliser in their opening match, Gakpo has scored on all four of his group-stage starts at major tournaments (World Cup/Euros).

    In all competitions, the Liverpool forward has six goal involvements in his last eight appearances on the international stage (four goals, two assists). 

    Only Nathan Ake, with four, bettered his three chances created against Poland, while he also completed all five of his dribbles and won 15 of his total of 18 duels contested – both team-high figures.

    France – Antoine Griezmann

    With Mbappe likely to miss out, France need another of their attacking stars to step up. 

    Since the start of Euro 2016, Griezmann has more goal involvements at major tournaments (18 – 11 goals and seven assists) than any other European player (World Cup/Euros).

    Against Austria, no player on the pitch bettered Griezmann's two chances created, while he also attempted as many crosses (six) as all of his team-mates combined.

    In Mbappe's absence, he could get the freedom to roam into more advanced areas. He only managed two touches in the opposition box against Austria, though his two shots were worth a game-high 0.84 expected goals (xG).

  • 'Anyone would have him!' – Casillas excited to see Mbappe at Real Madrid 'Anyone would have him!' – Casillas excited to see Mbappe at Real Madrid

    Former Real Madrid goalkeeper Iker Casillas believes the European champions have brought in someone special with the signing of Kylian Mbappe.

    France star Mbappe announced he was leaving Paris Saint-Germain in May before making the move to Madrid earlier this month, ending a years-long transfer saga involving the two teams and the striker.

    The 25-year-old has signed a five-year contract with the winners of LaLiga, who he will join as a free agent in July after his contract with PSG expires, with Brazil sensation Endrick also set to arrive in the Spanish capital.

    With Mbappe joining a side containing a wealth of talent already, which recently captured the Champions League, Casillas is impressed by the squad that Madrid have put together.

    "Mbappe is a very good player," Casillas said. "Everyone wants to have him; anyone would have him in their respective team.

    "Real Madrid have a brilliant president and brilliant people around them. Forming a team like this is something impressive.

    "You can learn a little from the past and in that sense give some continuity to the team as a great club with great players.

    "Real Madrid has them. We will see how they continue to mesh and how they can continue giving joy to the fans."

    Mbappe was tipped to be one of the most influential players at Euro 2024, but his tournament looked in danger of ending early when he suffered a broken nose in France’s opening game against Austria.

    "With Mbappe out, France may suffer a little," two-time Euros champion Casillas added, with Mbappe's status for France's next matches uncertain.

    "But France have a team with very good players and there has been a bit of a revolution by Didier Deschamps.

    "So France can certainly still be a contender and get to the final of the Euros, but we now must see if France can play as well without him."

    Spain are the only team to win back-to-back editions of the European Championships, with Casillas captaining the side in both 2008 and 2012, while also leading them to World Cup glory in 2010.

    This year, Spain have a more youthful look to the squad, with Lamine Yamal becoming the youngest-ever player to appear at the Euros at 16 years and 338 days old.

    The teenager got an assist in Spain’s 3-0 win over Croatia in their first match of the tournament, and Casillas is pleased to see Luis de la Fuente giving young players a chance on the big stage.

    He said: "It is good to see that young players continue to emerge in football in Spain and are being considered stars of the future. It is good for the entire team.

    "Only [Yamal] can prove if he will be a great player - solely and exclusively, him, and of course, the trust and effort that goes in.

    "Let's see, with the confidence and maturity he has, plus the other team-mates who will support him, if he can become a very good player for Spain.

    "We know that the strength of the team comes from the depth and we need to continue having these players emerge."
     

    Iker Casillas is a brand ambassador for Hisense's UEFA EURO 2024 campaign BEYOND GLORY which celebrates the relentless pursuit of excellence shared by professional footballers aiming for EURO honours and Hisense’s commitment to pushing boundaries in the home appliance industry.

  • Euro 2024 social round-up: Ronaldo's rally cry as Portuguese laud it up in Leipzig and France offer Mbappe update Euro 2024 social round-up: Ronaldo's rally cry as Portuguese laud it up in Leipzig and France offer Mbappe update

    Cristiano Ronaldo and Portugal claimed a late win over Czechia to get their Euro 2024 campaign up and running.

    Before that, there was a sensational Group F opener between Turkiye and Georgia.

    But the football was not the only thing to look out for.

    Here, we round up the best of Tuesday's social posts from around Euro 2024.

     

    Ronaldo's rallying cry

    Ahead of becoming the first player to feature at six European Championships, Ronaldo posted a motivational message on social media.

    "Portuguese, today begins another chapter in our history," Ronaldo wrote in a caption that came with a video of some of his best moments in a Portugal shirt.

    "I fondly remember my first day with the national team, a journey full of challenges and victories. Now, I have the honor of being alongside a team of champions, full of talent and determination. With everyone’s strength and support, we turn dreams into reality. Let's, together, fight for another triumph. United, we are unstoppable. Go Portugal!"

    The rallying cry just about worked - Ronaldo didn't score, but Portugal beat Czechia 2-1 thanks to Francisco Conceicao's last-gasp winner.

    Portuguese party in Leipzig

    There were plenty of travelling Portuguese fans who made themselves right at home in Leipzig.

    It looked like a fair old party pre kick-off!

    Nose job

    Mbappe will require surgery, France coach Didier Deschamps confirmed, to fix his broken nose.

    However, when the superstar forward will go under the knife remains to be seen.

    Deschamps revealed this in a video interview posted to the official France team X account. Could Mbappe's Euro 2024 be over, or will he make it back in time to feature?

    Kante's warm welcome

    It was not all doom and gloom for France.

    N'Golo Kante was spectacular in his first competitive game for Les Bleus in two years, and the 33-year-old midfielder received a rapturous reception when he returned to the dressing room after the match, with the moment captured on video.

    Baller

    Turkiye and Georgia served up a thrilling encounter, and Arda Guler was one of the stars of the show.

    The Real Madrid midfielder became the youngest player to score on his Euros debut, breaking a record set by Ronaldo way back in 2004.

    He did so in stunning fashion, curling home from outside the area, and it's worth watching again and again.

    Quaresma watches on

    Ex-Portugal star Quaresma was no stranger to scoring great goals on the big stage, and he watched on from the stands to support his nation.

    Cool as you like

    Looking dapper is part and parcel of a team's travelling routine to and from match locations, especially for major tournaments.

    And the German team made sure to dress with the style befitting of hosts as they left their training base and headed for Stuttgart, where they take on Hungary on Wednesday.

    Derek's Cologne tour

    The Tartan Army have taken over Cologne ahead of Scotland's clash with Switzerland on Wednesday.

    And with the help of commentator Derek Rae, Scotland's social media team put out a handy guide to the city.

    Rice grabs the lens

    France's Benjamin Pavard took over camera duties for an ad hoc Olivier Giroud photo shoot earlier in the competition, and now England's Declan Rice has got in on the act.

    After training on Tuesday, Rice grabbed hold of the camera to get some snaps of his team-mates. And the results were pretty good!

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