Mikael Silvestre is backing France to justify favouritism at Euro 2004 and that includes beating England in their opening game.
Not even the presence of Nicky Butt in the small interview room at Manchester United’s Carrington training ground could dissuade Silvestre from expressing the belief that Les Blues can finally lay their World Cup nightmare to rest and hold onto the trophy they won in Amsterdam nearly four years ago.
Under new coach Jacques Santini, France have re-established their reputation as one of the world’s best sides following their humiliating first round exit in the Far East last year.
They were the only country to boast a 100% record in qualification for Portugal and, with Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira in their squad, Silvestre believes the French camp has every reason to be confident.
“There is a lot of pressure on us after what happened in the World Cup and we are the favourites as well, so that brings even more,” said the 26-year-old full-back turned central defender.
“When you look at the players in our squad, it’s only right that people expect us to win it but we must learn from what happened in the World Cup.
“Everybody expected us to reach the final, yet after three games we were back at home. It was really disappointing because we were capable of doing far better and we intend to show that next summer.”
On paper, the French seem certainties to emerge victorious from their meeting with England in Lisbon on June 13.
Yet Sven-Goran Eriksson, whose only defeat in a competitive match as national coach came at the World Cup against Brazil, will draw comfort from the way France struggled in the Far East, weighed down by the burden of trying to become only the second country to retain the World Cup.
With so many cross-Channel foes in the Premiership, neither side will lack motivation and, while relishing the prospect of the first meeting, Silvestre is hoping for a rematch much later in the competition.
“I am really looking forward to it,” he said.
“It will be a tough game and it is a shame it is the first one because whoever loses will be under an intense amount of pressure.
“But I believe we can both get through the group and if everything works out, it would be nice to meet again in the final.”
For now though, Silvestre is putting thoughts of international combat to one side.
His immediate aim is to ensure United get the win required against Stuttgart at Old Trafford on Tuesday to guarantee them top spot in Group E and a favourable Champions League draw in the first knock-out stage.
The Red Devils’ 2-1 reverse in the first meeting between the teams brought a stinging response from Sir Alex Ferguson, who was annoyed at the lacklustre way his side defended after half-time, a period which saw Stuttgart establish their match-winning two-goal cushion.
Silvestre accepted the criticism even though Stuttgart remain unbeaten and on course to win the Bundesliga.
“We let ourselves down over there,” he admitted.
“Stuttgart played well but we fell asleep at the back. The manager wasn’t very complimentary afterwards but that was understandable given the way we performed.”
UEFA’s decision to abandon the second group phase this season pitches the last 16 into two-legged knock-out football, which offers no second chance to the losers.
The absence of a safety net has won favour with the majority of United players, who are still aggrieved at seeing Juventus compete in last year’s Old Trafford final, even though they had beaten the Italians home and away.
The new format does however place a premium on winning the group, particularly as Juventus and Real Madrid are among the opponents who will be avoided.
“I like the formula,” said Silvestre. “Previously there have been too many group matches, this is far better.
“Having said that, we could do with winning on Tuesday so we finish top of the group.
“It’s only natural to think if you avoid Real Madrid, AC Milan and Juventus, you will have a better chance of reaching the later stages.”