Bacary Sagna claimed Iceland gave England “a lesson in dignity” when eliminating Roy Hodgson’s side from the European Championship as France attempt to ensure they do not suffer the same fate in Sunday’s quarter-final in Saint-Denis.
The hosts confront Lars Lagerback’s side at the Stade de France without the suspended N’Golo Kanté and Adil Rami, but still as favourites to progress into a semi-final against Germany or Italy. Yet Iceland’s startling progress, likened to that of Leicester City back in the Premier League, at their first major tournament has left the French wary before the teams’ eagerly anticipated meeting.
The demise of Hodgson’s team in Nice has at least served as a warning for Les Bleus. “I thought England would win because they have a young and talented team, and I’m used to playing against most of them,” Sagna said. “But, all the same, I was quite happy for this Iceland team because they gave England a lesson in dignity. Why didn’t the English go through? I don’t know. In football anything can happen in a game and, from what I saw, Iceland deserved it. It’s not just one player with them who makes the difference. Their whole team will cause problems for us.
“I think, after the Euros, a lot of clubs will come in for their players because they’ve shown they can play well, they can cope with the pressure and that they can cause teams problems. For a lot of people they’re the surprise team of the tournament. They’re a bit like the Leicester City of Euro 2016, but they totally deserve to be here and they showed in qualifying that they could beat good teams. They twice beat Holland, they beat the Czechs and finished top of their group. They’re a quality team and you can’t underestimate them.
“Anything can happen, but we’ve been warned about them. They played well against Portugal in the group stage and now England in the knockout, so it’s down to us to make sure it doesn’t happen to us.”
Sagna, who has spent the past nine seasons at Arsenal and Manchester City, echoed his team-mate Patrice Evra’s suggestion that England may have underestimated Iceland in Monday’s last-16 tie. “It was a shock for the country because England are England,” he said. “I think a lot of people in England underestimated Iceland. After our match against the Republic of Ireland, most of the English journalists asked me about the France-England quarter-final, which shows that they were pretty confident. But they’ve taken a good slap.
“The criticism can be a bit harsh when you’re a player. But, obviously, when there’s a lot of expectation you have to accept it. With regards to the English system, I don’t think they will change an enormous amount of things. The coach will change, obviously, because Roy Hodgson has left. But I think they will try and get back to basics and build a united team on the pitch, and to cope with pressure better as well.”
France, up to now, have dealt with the weight of expectation relatively well despite all their games having proved tight. Their progress has been secured with late wins both in the group stage – against Romania and Albania – and the knockout, where Antoine Griezmann’s brace eventually beat the Irish in Lyon. The Iceland joint-manager Heimir Hallgrimsson has suggested Didier Deschamps’ team could struggle with the pressure on Sunday because a loss “would be horrible for the French nation”.
“I don’t think we are particularly tense,” Sagna said. “You can see that it’s been difficult for everyone at this Euros, except for Germany. Maybe because we’re the host side we’ve put ourselves under a bit more pressure. The danger in this match is not only the Iceland team, but also ourselves because we know we’re capable of playing really well, we’re among the favourites and we have a status to defend. Maybe, we are trying too hard to do well. Perhaps that’s holding us back.
“But I’m not worried. It’s a good form of pressure we’re under now. We had to play two years of friendlies which wasn’t easy, and now we have a positive form of pressure. You see the images from the fan-zones when we score and it warms your heart. We have to use that.”
Deschamps is expected to start with Crystal Palace’s Yohan Cabaye in Kanté’s midfield berth, with Samuel Umtiti – who has agreed a £22m move from Lyon to Barcelona – replacing the suspended Rami at the back. “We have players who play in big clubs, most of them are playing in the Champions League, so we have to start games better and impose ourselves from the outset,” Sagna said. “The earlier we can make the difference the better. It will take the pressure off everyone. We have to be ready from the off, not at half-time.
“Everyone has to be aware that we’ve had a little bit of luck to keep coming back every time. It won’t work every time. But we want to go further than this. To stop in the quarter-finals would be a failure for me. We have the ability to go all the way and I’m only thinking about the final.
“I’m not thinking about defeat right now. I can’t see myself going on holiday so early, I can’t see myself letting the France fans down. We will prepare as well as possible, without underestimating them. But we believe in ourselves.”