Adil Rami’s suspension means defender Samuel Umtiti, seemingly poised to join Barcelona, should make his France debut in Sunday’s pressure-cooker quarter-final against Iceland at the Stade de France. Find out more about the 22-year-old with EURO2016.com.
“Even though I’m not going to play that much, I’m making the most of being here,” Umtiti told EURO2016.com after the second Group A game against Albania.
In fact, the left-footed centre-back did not make the initial 23 and was also overlooked when Raphaël Varane withdrew injured in favour of Rami, who went straight into the team alongside Laurent Koscielny. Umtiti’s chance came when Jérémy Mathieu’s calf injury forced him out, making the newcomer the only uncapped outfield player in the squad.
Jumping ahead of Mangala
Rami’s ascent was facilitated by him being right-footed, allowing Koscielny to operate in his preferred left-sided central role. The Arsenal man will shift to the right on Sunday and Umtiti appears to have overtaken the more experienced Eliaquim Mangala to claim the other berth.
Mangala stands eight centimetres taller than Umtiti’s 180cm and the Manchester City man’s superior aerial ability could have helped counter Iceland’s long throws. However, Umtiti’s impressive training-ground efforts seem to have convinced an initially sceptical Didier Deschamps. As recently as last October, Deschamps justified Umtiti’s omission from the squad by saying: “Maybe you haven’t been watching his Champions League games.”
“The ball doesn’t burn his feet,” was Rémi Garde’s comment after handing Umtiti his Lyon debut at the age of 18. The French use this expression for a technically gifted player. The accuracy of Umtiti’s distribution will enable France to build from the back and enhance the quality of the first pass, something lacking from the hosts’ game in the absence of the cultured Varane.
While there is no doubting Umtiti’s ability, he remains untested in a match of this magnitude. Even Bruno Génésio, his Lyon coach, concedes: “The most difficult thing for him if he plays is to control his emotions. He mustn’t allow the size of the occasion to swallow him up.”
Les Bleus rather than the Indomitable Lions
Born in the Cameroonian capital Yaounde, Umtiti moved to Lyon with his family aged two. Until recently, Cameroon had hoped to persuade the defender to represent the country of his birth, and last December Roger Milla – the greatest ever Indomitable Lion – visited France to lobby Umtiti’s mother and Yannick Um, the player’s brother and agent.
Umtiti would not be deviated from his France dream, telling L’Équipe earlier this year: “I’ve got family living there and I go over from time to time. But I went to school in France and played age-group football for France from 16. It was normal to want to progress to the senior side.”
Transfer speculation linking Umtiti with a €30m-plus switch to Barcelona has intensified in recent days, with Lyon president Jean-Michel Aulas saying on Wednesday, “Samuel can only leave the club if it is to go to Barcelona.” The French side confirmed a deal on Thursday afternoon.
Umtiti refused to comment on the matter. He did, however, make the following interesting revelation: “I speak a little Spanish because my girlfriend speaks to me in Spanish, so I understand a couple of words.”