TOULOUSE, France: Minnows Albania could feel the full force of Euro 2016 hosts France as confidence grows ahead of their Group A encounter in Marseille on Wednesday (Thursday in Manila), warned striker Olivier Giroud.
Arsenal striker Giroud put any lingering doubts over his goalscoring form behind him after 57 minutes at the Stade de France on Friday to head the opening goal of the tournament.
Having begun their campaign nervously, the weight of expectation on Les Bleus was shed in the final minutes when Dimitri Payet’s stunning strike secured a precious 2-1 win over Romania.
Described as a “relief” by defender Adil Rami, Giroud believes fans can now look forward to seeing Didier Deschamps’ men play to their full potential.
“As the tournament progresses, I’m sure we’re going to get better and better,” said Giroud, who has welcomed the pressure of leading the hosts’ attack in the absence of Karim Benzema, left out of the squad due to his role in an attempt to blackmail teammate Mathieu Valbuena over a sex tape.
“I’m better when I’m under pressure. I don’t want to spend time answering my detractors, but I’m feeling good in this set-up and I’ve gained a lot of confidence in the France team.
“I’m really enjoying it, and try to give it everything.”
Indeed, despite his critics, Giroud has now scored eight times in his last eight games for France.
For Albania, the tournament started in ominous fashion when captain Lorik Cana was shown the first red card of the competition in a 1-0 defeat to Switzerland on Saturday.
While a France win on Wednesday will see the hosts secure their place in the last 16 of the competition, and allow Deschamps to rotate players ahead of their final group game against Switzerland on June 19 in Lille, it would spell disaster for the Balkan minnows.
Albania’s Italian coach Gianni De Biasi is so devoted to the cause he is now the proud owner of two passports.
But his patriotism wasn’t enough for their maiden European Championship fixture that also made history when brothers Granit and Taulent Xhaka started for Switzerland and Albania respectively.
“We needed a good start and that didn’t happen,” he said after their opening 1-0 defeat.
De Biasi’s side play a well-drilled Italian-style counter-attacking game, often ‘parking the bus’ to stifle the opposition, a tactic which rarely leads to more than a single goal conceded.
After France’s opening win, Sevilla defender Rami said: “I hope this win will allow us to play our real game during our next matches.”
But a defensively tight Albania could test France’s ability to carve open opposition defences on Wednesday, when Deschamps is expected to ring a few changes.
After a disappointing performance from Paul Pogba, the Juventus star could be replaced by Moussa Sissoko, as he did at the 2014 World Cup in Brazil when he came on as a substitute in France’s second match, a 5-2 victory over Switzerland.
Although Atletico Madrid striker Antoine Griezmann also failed to shine, Pogba — hailed as one of the big stars of the competition — was notably criticised for unnecessary showboating.
By contrast, Payet and the impressive N’Golo Kante will be among the first names on Deschamps’s team sheet.
There were calls for Payet to be elected president, at least on the front pages of the local press in his native Reunion in the Indian Ocean, after his emotional winner last week.
Giroud added: “He’s given a huge boost to the team. He’s had a great season and is an important player for us.”
But veteran Patrice Evra was quick to remind fans of France’s collective strength, and called on media not to heap unnecessary pressure on individual players whether good or bad.
“The star of the France team is the team itself, not one or two players,” Evra said at the team’s Clairefontaine training camp outside of Paris.
“It’s not just about Paul [Pogba] or Antoine [Griezmann].”
He added: “Please, don’t go crazy over Dimitri [Payet].”