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A year losing to Albania, France form has transformed

Associated Press Associated Press 13/06/2016 By JEROME PUGMIRE, AP Sports Writer
France coach Didier Deschamps juggles with a ball during a training session at the Clairefontaine training center, outside Paris, France, Sunday, June 12, 2016. France will face Albania in a Euro 2016 Group A soccer match in Marseille on Wednesday, June 15, 2016. © AP Photo/Thibault Camus France coach Didier Deschamps juggles with a ball during a training session at the Clairefontaine training center, outside Paris, France, Sunday, June 12, 2016. France will face Albania in a Euro 2016 Group A soccer match in Marseille on Wednesday, June 15, 2016.

PARIS — One year ago, France coach Didier Deschamps watched with frustration as his players lost at Albania in a match devoid of passion or creativity.

It was the low point of his coaching career with the national team, and he was scathing about the performance of his players.

On Wednesday, France will head into a European Championship match against Albania looking to win its 11th match in 12 games, having scored 15 goals in the past five, and with two players who fared badly in that game now in their best form.

Striker Olivier Giroud and attacking midfielder Dimitri Payet were both taken off at halftime in Elbasan, with Giroud's touch deserting him as passes bounced off him, and a forlorn Payet fearing his international career was over following that match.

Last Friday, those two ensured France's national team got Euro 2016 off to a positive start with a 2-1 win over Romania — Giroud scoring the opening goal with a header from Payet's cross, and Payet scoring a spectacular last-minute winner with a thunderous shot into the top left corner.

"It's very important to have Payet in this kind of form," Deschamps said. "He's vital for us."

It was Payet's third straight eye-catching goal for Les Bleus — following expertly struck free kicks against Russia and Cameroon — while Giroud scored for the eighth time in eight games to largely silence the critics who would rather see Karim Benzema playing up front.

They will be closely watched by an Albanian side weakened by the loss of captain Lorik Cana, a veteran of 92 international games who is crucial to his side either as a holding midfielder or a central defender.

Cana will be missing through suspension after being sent off during the first half of Albania's 1-0 loss to Switzerland on Saturday.

It will be particularly sad for Cana, too, because the game is being played at Stade Velodrome, where he played during four seasons at Marseille and became a firm favorite with fans because of determined attitude and unflagging commitment.

Needing points in Group A, Albania may need to take a more attack-minded approach against the French; and the onus will be on striker Armando Sadiku to repeat the form he showed in pre-tournament friendlies, when he scored in consecutive games against Luxembourg, Qatar and Ukraine.

Attacking France is risky, however, considering that the hosts play better as a counter-attacking unit, using the pace of forward Antoine Griezmann and the long-range passing of midfielder Paul Pogba.

Such a star in Italy, Pogba is still struggling to play at his best for France and looked unhappy he was taken off with 15 minutes left against Romania.

"Pogba can obviously play better," Deschamps said. "But I don't want to be too hard on him."

France coach Didier Deschamps juggles with a ball during a training session at the Clairefontaine training center, outside Paris, France, Sunday, June 12, 2016. France will face Albania in a Euro 2016 Group A soccer match in Marseille on Wednesday, June 15, 2016.

France coach Didier Deschamps juggles with a ball during a training session at the Clairefontaine training center, outside Paris, France, Sunday, June 12, 2016. France will face Albania in a Euro 2016 Group A soccer match in Marseille on Wednesday, June 15, 2016.
© AP Photo/Thibault Camus
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