It's entirely possible the staging of the 2021 European Under-21 Championship will have passed many people by, given the fact it's taken on a somewhat peculiar format of a mid-season group stage with the knockout phase following two months later.

Originally due to take place solely in June, organisers were forced into a re-think following last year's postponement of the senior competition. It was decided to split the Under-21s' event in two, therefore avoiding a clash.

Despite the rather unconventional format, the competition will see many of the continent's most-promising prodigies on display.

The tournament, based in Hungary and Slovenia, begins on Wednesday with the Magyars hosting Germany, and we have identified some high-potential talents to keep an eye on.

Alban Lafont, France – Goalkeeper

Lafont has been a regular at this age-group level with France for many years, but a brief stint at Fiorentina in 2018-19 did not go to plan, with the Toulouse youth product freely admitting his performances "were not the best" as he secured to a loan move to Nantes ahead of last season.

Only Andrea Consigli (six) made more than Lafont's four errors leading to shots in Serie A two seasons ago, but his dependability appears to have improved considerably since returning to France, with no shots occurring because of errors by him in 57 Ligue 1 matches.

He also produced a particularly strong performance in the shock 2-1 win over Paris Saint-Germain earlier this month, making four saves including a couple of eye-catching stops to thwart Angel Di Maria.

 

A closer at Lafont’s performances for a struggling Nantes side in 2020-21 reveals he has not had the greatest campaign. When discounting own goals and penalties by the opposition, Lafont has allowed 3.5 goals more than the ‘average’ goalkeeper would have been expected to concede in Ligue 1 this season (37 conceded, 33.5 xG on target).

The metric ‘Goals Prevented Rate’ can account for different goalkeepers facing a different volume of shots through a period of time. An example of this is that PSG goalkeeper Keylor Navas has a goals prevented rate of 1.37 this season, meaning for every non-penalty goal that Navas has conceded (excluding own goals), the average goalkeeper would be expected to concede 1.37. Lafont’s rate of 0.91 this season is 10th out of 17 goalkeepers to have played 1800 minutes of French top-flight football in 2020-21.

 

Additionally, France's regular at this level knows he has a very capable understudy in Illan Meslier breathing down his neck.

Prior to his 21st birthday earlier in the month, Meslier broke the record for the most clean sheets by an under-21 goalkeeper in a single Premier League season (eight) and has since added another to that figure.

That means he has three times as many shutouts as Lafont, which is intriguing because it raises the question of why then has Meslier not conceded fewer goals?

For starters, it suggests Lafont is more consistent but also highlights that when Leeds concede, the floodgates can really burst open. With those 46 goals spread across 19 matches, it means Meslier is conceding on average 2.5 goals per game when he doesn't get a clean sheet – this drops to 1.7 for Lafont.

 

On top of that, Meslier's seven errors leading to shots is more than any other player in the Premier League this term, perhaps showing he's still in the inexperienced, nervous phase that Lafont has seemingly left behind.

Meslier's superior save percentage of 71.1 compared to 65.7 speaks to the former Lorient youngster's shot-stopping abilities, though for the time being Lafont's greater consistency looks set to keep him first-choice.

Sven Botman, Netherlands – Central Defender

A promising loan spell with Heerenveen last season alerted Lille to the talents of Ajax-owned Botman and he has been a real hit for Les Dogues since a reported €8m move, helping them to mount a serious Ligue 1 title challenge.

Lille's 19 goals conceded is the fewest in France's top tier and, while not necessarily entirely down to Botman, there's no doubt he's made his presence known as a reliable powerhouse at the back.

 

Of the 856 players across Europe's top five leagues to have engaged in at least 150 duels, Botman's 71.4 per cent success rate is the best, and that competitiveness is also reflected in his aerial prowess.

Only four of the 157 players in the continent's elite divisions to have been involved in 100+ aerial duels have a better success rate than the Dutch youngster (72.5 per cent).

While his impressive physical attributes might lead to certain assumptions about his style of play, Botman is more than a brutish centre-back, as proven by the fact his 452 ball carries – defined as a player moving five metres or more with the ball – is the fourth highest among Ligue 1 central defenders.

 

Of course, there is likely to be a glaring absence from the senior Dutch side at Euro 2020. with Liverpool boss Jurgen Klopp not expecting Virgil van Dijk to be ready for the tournament.

That means there is potentially a spot up for grabs in the centre of the Netherlands defence, and Botman's combination of power and elegance suggests he could be a good fit as Van Dijk's deputy.

Granted, the young defender – who hasn't been capped at senior level yet – still has a way to go to match up to the Reds star, but in the context of young defenders of a similar ilk, Botman certainly compares well and his strengths are similar to those of Van Dijk.

His aerial stats prove he's an excellent physical specimen, and his effectiveness in duels reflects the fact he's a difficult defender to beat. A strong showing here might just help convince Frank de Boer that Botman's ready to step up later this year.

Jules Kounde, France – Central Defender

Les Bleus are blessed with an embarrassment of riches in most areas, but the fact Kounde is turning out for the Under-21s in this tournament instead of the senior side exemplifies their depth in quality at the heart of the defence.

In his second full season with Sevilla, Kounde has kicked on following a hugely encouraging second half to 2019-20, so much so that he's arguably the first name on the team sheet for Julen Lopetegui.

 

His forward-thinking nature has made him key to the coach's 'Lavolpiana build-up' defensive structure, a setup attributed to Argentinian coach Ricardo La Volpe that essentially demands centre-backs carry the ball forward from a three-man backline.

Only two central defenders in La Liga have bettered Kounde's rate of 19.2 carries per 90, while there are just three who have covered more distance carrying the ball further up field than the Frenchman this term (2,774 metres).

This positivity is generally offset by Fernando dropping in to form a faux back three, while Kounde's movement up the right can often create overloads as he teams up with Jesus Navas, Sevilla's biggest chance creator (44).

 

But evidence of his progressive mentality doesn't stop there. While possessional stats can often be skewed for centre-backs, given the sheer number of simple short balls played between defensive colleagues, Kounde is clearly looking ahead, and often.

No defender has been successful with more forward passes in open play than Kounde this season in LaLiga (507), with the 22-year-old completing an impressive 79 per cent of these. Therefore, perhaps it's not surprising to learn no Sevilla player has been involved in more shot-ending build-up sequences than he has (53), demonstrating his value to their forays forward, despite not attempting the shots or making the final pass in that move.

Kounde is a prime example of how centre-backs can be just as satisfying to see in possession as your classic playmakers – in fact, that is essentially what he is developing into, a defensive playmaker of the ilk who would have looked at home in the great Barcelona teams of the past 14 years.

Pedro Goncalves, Portugal – Attacking Midfielder

It's fair to say that, when Sporting CP set out to replace Bruno Fernandes, never in their wildest dreams would they have expected what they got. Pedro Goncalves had been a key figure for Famalicao in 2019-20, but to say he's surpassed expectations in Lisbon would be an understatement.

Goncalves operates in similar spaces to Fernandes, albeit drifting towards the right a little more, and his hot streak in front of goal has helped put Sporting on course for a first league title since 2001-02.

 

In 22 Primeira Liga matches, the attacking midfielder has scored 15 goals – none of which were penalties. The 22-year-old's xG total is just 6.9, meaning his over-performance of 8.1 is the biggest across Europe's top six leagues, aside from the phenomenal Robert Lewandowski (9.3).

Of course, the chances of him being able to sustain such a run in the long-term are low, but it still highlights what a danger the former Wolves youngster poses in his current form.

 

Comparisons with Fernandes have been rife, for obvious reasons, but they show many different traits to their game.

In Fernandes' final 50 league games for Sporting, he averaged 3.4 shots per 90 minutes and 2.3 of those non-penalty shots came from outside the box – Goncalves attempts 2.6 on average each game, with only 1.1 coming from beyond the penalty area.

As such, the average quality of Fernandes' shots in his final 50 games for Sporting weren't outstanding, with his xG per non-penalty shot equating to 0.07. Goncalves' is almost double that at 0.13, suggesting he picks his moments more selectively while also taking fewer attempts.

Nevertheless, despite Fernandes' penchant for a long-range effort, he only scored four times from outside the box in his final 50 league matches for Sporting – Goncalves already has three this term from 28 fewer games.

 

The biggest difference between the pair is assists. Fernandes' 20 in his final 50 outings for Sporting dwarfs Goncalves' three in 2020-21, but interestingly their expected assists per 90 minutes isn't hugely dissimilar. Fernandes is ahead 0.29 to 0.20 in this area, but a potential explanation for this potentially lies in the respective teams they've played in.

 

The next highest-scorer for Sporting this season after Goncalves himself is Nuno Santos with six – they don't have a prolific centre-forward, whereas Fernandes was supplying Bas Dost, who netted 76 times in 84 league games for the club between 2016 and 2019.

As we all know now, Fernandes was on the trajectory of an elite-level player. He's proven this at Manchester United, though there were certainly those who were sceptical about him prior to his move.

It'll be a tough ask, but why can't Goncalves continue to defy expectations?

Fedor Chalov, Russia - Forward

Russian striker Fedor Chalov is undoubtedly one of the most experienced players involved at the tournament, with the 22-year-old having already played 115 Russian Premier League matches in addition to his 11 UEFA Champions League appearances.

Chalov burst on to the scene in Russia with CSKA Moscow at 18 years old back in November 2016 and scored in just his fifth top-flight appearance for the club versus Ural a month later.

After scoring six goals in each of his opening two league seasons at CSKA, 2018-19 was when he really began to make a name for himself in Russia - winning the league's top scorer award with 15 goals, while also posting his best-ever season tally for assists (7).

But Chalov's career hasn't kicked on as expected since then, scoring just 13 goals in 50 top-flight appearances over the past two seasons, but his performances have been stirring enough to attract the attentions of multiple Premier League clubs during the January transfer window.

 

Despite this, Chalov's numbers domestically at top-tier level are mightily impressive for a player so early in his career. Despite only being 22, Chalov's tally of 60 goal involvements since his Russian Premier League debut are the third most by a player in the competition.

Russia are certainly one of the underdogs for the 2021 Under-21 European Championship and are unlikely to top their group, having been drawn alongside favourites France. However, if Chalov can find form in the first stage of the tournament then he could be the linchpin to Russian hopes of qualifying for the knockout stages in May.

The understanding between Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud will be key to a successful World Cup qualifying campaign for France, according to boss Didier Deschamps. 

Reigning world champions France start their Group D campaign against Ukraine on Thursday before taking on Kazakhstan and Bosnia-Herzegovina on Sunday and Wednesday respectively. 

Les Bleus are expected to comfortably book their place in Qatar next year and Deschamps expects his forward trio to shine again after their heroics won the 2018 tournament. 

"I'm not going to separate them from the rest of the team, but when you look at the number of goals and assists that the three provide, that's what allowed the France team to be world champions," he told a media conference.

"They know each other; it is automatic. The experience they have is something important. It is up to them to maintain this level of performance."

Mbappe has enjoyed another fine season for Paris Saint-Germain and is Ligue 1's top scorer with 20 goals in 21 starts.

He has also laid on six goals for his team-mates – second behind only Angel Di Maria (eight) for Mauricio Pochettino's side. 

Mbappe largely plays on the left of a front three for his club and Deschamps revealed he has spoken to the 22-year-old to ensure his position for France brings out the best in him.

"Kylian has the ability to play in all offensive positions," Deschamps said. "In his club, he is mainly used in a position on the left, even if he has a lot of freedom. 

"Sometimes he plays in the middle, where he is also efficient. On the right, he plays less. I discuss it with him to make sure he is happy [where he plays]."

Trying to force his way into Deschamps' forward line will be Ousmane Dembele, who has not featured for France since November 2018.

Deschamps handed the Barcelona man his full debut back in September 2016 and, after injuries wiped out the vast majority of the 2019-20 season, he has returned to form this term. 

Captain Hugo Lloris is pleased to see the 23-year-old back on the international scene and is hopeful he is in the right condition to make a positive impact. 

"He has a fairly strong history with the France team as he was part of the World Cup group in Russia," the Tottenham goalkeeper said. 

"He was held back by injuries, but we know all his qualities. We hope that his injuries are behind him and that he can look ahead. 

"He is doing very good things with Barca. We know what he can bring and what he is capable of doing."

Lucas Hernandez has joked he is ready to go to war with compatriot Kylian Mbappe when Bayern Munich face Paris Saint-Germain in the Champions League quarter-finals.

The heavyweight clubs were paired together in Friday's draw, potentially giving PSG a chance to exact some revenge following last season's 1-0 loss to the same side in the final.

Hernandez was an unused substitute for Bayern that day, while Mbappe played the full 90 minutes through the middle of the French giants' three-man attack.

France international Hernandez played the full 90 minutes of Bayern's 2-1 second-leg win over Lazio in the last 16, but he has more regularly been used as a substitute this season.

But if the versatile left-sided defender is given the nod to play against PSG in either leg next month, he is up for the challenge of keeping prolific countryman Mbappe quiet.

"If I have to face him I will say two or three words to keep him quiet," Hernandez said in an interview with L'Equipe. 

"I will tell him above all he should stick to PSG's left side. If he comes to the right then it will be a war! I'm kidding, but it's true he has a talent and we must be vigilant with him.

"The Champions League is what we are aiming to retain on May 29. Everyone is determined to do exactly that."

Mbappe reached the 30-goal mark for the campaign with his double in Sunday's 4-2 win against Lyon, while also bringing up a century of Ligue 1 strikes in the process.

At the age of 22 years, three months and one day, he overtook former Saint-Etienne striker Herve Revelli as the youngest player to reach three figures for goals in the division.

That victory moved PSG to the top of Ligue 1, keeping them on course for a clean sweep of trophies in Mauricio Pochettino's first campaign at the helm – the Argentinian having replaced Thomas Tuchel in January.

Bayern are the team PSG have defeated the most in European competition (five times), but they have won just one of the last four encounters – a 3-0 win in September 2017.

Hernandez, currently away on international duty with France, is expecting a tight contest when the sides face off in April.

"It will be a huge match," he said. "It will not be easy to eliminate them and they will be after a little revenge following last season's final.

"The Parisians will be envious, but so will we. Several important players have left but other great players have replaced them.

"When you see our offensive quality, we create four chances and score four goals - it's incredible. But we also have a solid defensive block. Everyone is ready to give their all."

Hernandez has played 29 times in all competitions this season, which is already four more than he managed in the whole of last season when struck down by injuries.

Bayern have won 10 and drawn two of the 12 league games Hernandez has started this term, compared to three defeats in 14 games without the defender in their XI.

And having put his injury troubles behind him, the 25-year-old is eager to continue taking his chances when they arrive.

"It's true that I have had periods where I have played less than I wanted, but Hansi Flick always trusted me," Hernandez said. "In his speeches he always used to count on me.

"That's why when I wasn't playing, I sometimes struggled to understand. But this year I have come back from my injuries. I'm now 100 per cent and the coach knows that.

"It's always flattering when a coach says 'it's great to have a player like you'. He knows it doesn't matter if I play 10, 30 or 40 minutes. I'll give my all, and he likes that."

Real Madrid defender Raphael Varane said he aspires to play with the best players as the Frenchman addressed speculation linking Kylian Mbappe to the LaLiga giants.

Mbappe has been tipped to leave Ligue 1 champions PSG for LaLiga holders Madrid, with the France star yet to re-sign in Paris as his contract expires in 2022.

PSG remain in discussions with Mbappe – who celebrated his 100th Ligue 1 goal on Sunday – over a new deal.

Varane was asked about France team-mate Mbappe ahead of Wednesday's World Cup qualifier at home to Ukraine, and he told Europe 1: "He's still young, but he's already progressed enormously and he continues to evolve.

"He's becoming more and more complete and he's still a goalscorer; he's one of the greats.

"I aspire to play with the best players and Kylian is one of the best players in Europe."

Madrid head coach Zinedine Zidane has made no secret of his desire to work with countryman Mbappe at the Santiago Bernabeu.

However, Zidane's future in the Spanish capital has been debated amid talk he could leave Madrid at the end of his contract in 2022.

Zidane returned to Madrid in 2019 after exiting a year earlier, having guided Los Blancos to three consecutive Champions League titles and LaLiga glory.

Taking charge of France has long been mooted, with Didier Deschamps' Les Bleus contract due to expire after the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.

"It's a possibility," Varane said of former international and 1998 World Cup winner Zidane coaching his native France.

"The French national team is a target for every French coach, it's normal that he’s potentially considered but it's not something relevant now.

"Our coach [Deschamps] is doing a very good job and we must focus on our short-term goals: clinching our presence in the World Cup and then the 2021 Euros."

Didier Deschamps believes Ousmane Dembele can still become a more consistent contributor after recalling the forward for the start of France's World Cup qualifying campaign. 

Dembele has not played an international game since November 2018, when he came on as a substitute in a 2-0 Nations League defeat to the Netherlands. 

However, his form this season for Barcelona has led to the 23-year-old being included in Les Bleus’ squad for games against Group D rivals Ukraine, Kazakhstan and Bosnia-Herzegovina 

Deschamps handed the player his full debut back in September 2016 and, after injuries wiped out the vast majority of the 2019-20 season, is pleased to see Dembele back performing again. 

Still, the France boss sees further room for improvement, pinpointing the need to have an even greater impact on games.

"He is a player who showed his qualities very early. He is still young," Deschamps told the media on Monday. 

"If we haven't seen him for a while, it's because he's not been spared from injuries. By the time he recovered he was injured again. 

"Now he is able to play again, he is able to make the difference and score goals. He could score more and be more effective. 

"It is not a question of changing him. He has been playing at the highest level for a long time. He is young. It would be good for him, for his club and for us if he could become more efficient.  

"Of course, this is something that needs to be worked on. As you mature, you may make better choices. All forwards have moments when they are less efficient than others."

Dembele has scored nine goals and provided four assists for Barca in all competitions this season, his fourth at Camp Nou.  

His tally of 78 shots is already his highest for a campaign since arriving from Borussia Dortmund, with his conversion rate sitting at 11.54 per cent.   

He barely featured last term but was more clinical in 2018-19, when he had 14 goals and eight assists in 42 appearances. That season, he converted shots at a rate of 20.29 per cent, with 45.45 per cent success from 'big chances', where Opta expects a player to score.  

Dembele has had 15 'big chances' and created a further seven under Ronald Koeman for Barca, who made it five wins on the spin in LaLiga at the weekend with a 6-1 thrashing of Real Sociedad, in which the Frenchman one of the goals.  

"Ousmane has and always had this ability to create chances and make the difference. He is not always decisive in the area. That's where it's most difficult," Deschamps continued.  

"The important thing is his ability to make the difference.  Yes, he can be more consistent from the beginning to the end of the game. 

"I'm not saying he can't progress or improve. I prefer to look at the qualities anyway. They all have little flaws that can be erased with time.   

"Sometimes they don't, but that doesn't stop them from being good. We are talking about a player who has been at the top level for several years and he is still very young."

France coach Fabien Galthie accused Wales' players of making sure Paul Willemse was sent off in Saturday's dramatic Six Nations encounter and urged the authorities not to impose a heavy sanction on the second-rower.

Wales were denied a famous Grand Slam by a last-gasp Brice Dulin try as Les Bleus kept their own championship hopes alive with a breathless 32-30 triumph in Paris.

That was despite France having to play out the final 12 minutes with 14 men after referee Luke Pearce judged Willemse made contact with the eyes of Wyn Jones.

Galthie, speaking through a translator at the post-match news conference, said: "If you watch the Wales players, it feels like they specialise in making sure opponents get red cards.

"Their body language is quite clear, I hope the referees are going to take that into consideration. I don't think he deserves a sanction.

"If you watch the video there is clearly no contact, or if there is it's clearly very limited. It's absolutely not voluntary. I believe we need to share this, I don't see why he should be sanctioned."

Oppositive number Wayne Pivac was keen not to be drawn into a back-and-forth over the incident.

"I don't really have any comment to that," said Pivac. "The match officials are running the game and they have plenty of replays.

"As you saw, it went on for some time. They went through their process and that's what the officials are there to do."

While it was heartbreak in the French capital for Wales, the hosts still have a rearranged fixture against Scotland to play.

To deny Wales the trophy, Galthie's men have to secure a bonus-point win over Scotland and triumph by at least 21 points.

Gael Fickou hopes the best is still to come for France in this year's tournament.

"The pinnacle? I hope it will be next week," the versatile centre said. "Scotland have a great team who are playing very well. We know it will be a complicated match.

"But we will do it step by step. Already, we must try to win it. And then we'll see what happens. We know it will be difficult, but we believe in it."

For Pivac, coming so close to a Grand Slam but falling short left the New Zealander feeling "numb".

"[It's] just desperately frustrating. The players got so close. We have to be proud of them," Pivac added.

"It's quite a numb feeling. The boys had put in such a fantastic effort, the game went pretty much to plan in the first half.

"We were urging them on, but to go from a potential Grand Slam to waiting another six days is frustrating."

So near and yet so far for Wales, who saw a Six Nations Grand Slam slip from their grasp when France conjured up a magical finish in Paris to keep their tournament hopes alive.

Les Bleus looked dead and buried when they trailed 30-20 in the second half, only to produce a late, late show that means the identity of the 2021 champions remains unknown, at least for a few more days.

Perhaps it should not have come as a surprise that a crazy contest in the French capital ended in such astonishing fashion, though.

The two teams had played the game as if it was on fast forward in the opening quarter, sharing four tries during a frenetic first half that finished all-square, allowing all – playing and watching – to draw breath.

Wales, however, seized control after the break, Josh Adams' try – along with the boot of Dan Biggar – helping establish a double-digit lead. Another Six Nations sweep seemed a sure-fire certainty when Paul Willemse was sent off, the lock punished for making contact with an opponent's eyes.

The dismissal left France down to 13 at the time, prop Mohammed Haouas already sitting watching from the sidelines while spending 10 minutes in the sin bin.

Yet rather than accept the inevitable, the red card instead galvanised Les Bleus. As Wales became the team to lose their discipline, leading to yellow cards for Taulupe Faletau and Liam Williams, the hosts worked up a head of steam to come roaring back.

Charles Ollivon's converted try cut the gap to three and, on the final play with the clock having ticked beyond the 80th minute, France retained and recycled possession long enough to eventually create space out wide for Brice Dulin to dart over, in the process breaking Wales' hearts.

A championship devoid of fans due to the coronavirus pandemic had served up a visual treat for all those watching on from afar.

"I thought we were pretty good for 80 minutes, it was just those dying seconds," Wales captain Alun Wyn Jones told BBC Sport.

"Our ill-discipline probably brought a lot of pressure on. Credit to France for the way they played in the last 15 minutes, but when we look back at it, probably the ill-discipline brought all that pressure on, as well as good French play."

Wyn Jones knows what it is like to secure Grand Slam glory, having done so three times previously in his international career. Now he has experienced the disappointment of coming up just short. A game that was under control got out of hand, a situation that is never good to be in when France are the opponents.

The second-rower completed all 22 attempted tackles in the game, making him the first player with 20 or more in a Six Nations match this year with a 100 per cent success rate. He so nearly had the perfect outcome, too.

"We have been privileged to get on with the tournament and get a triple crown, but there was obviously more at stake today," he added.

They still may be crowned winners yet, with France – who scored four tries against Wales for the first time in the Six Nations – needing another bonus-point triumph in their rearranged game against Scotland to have a chance of leapfrogging into top spot.

Wales will watch on with great interest but, whatever the outcome at Murrayfield, they have come a long way in the campaign, one that followed on from a tough 2020 which included a six-Test losing streak, leaving coach Wayne Pivac under pressure.

Still, that will be little comfort in the immediate aftermath. A Grand Slam was seemingly theirs, only for Dulin to touch down and hand the Welsh with a result that will be tough to stomach.

Raphael Ibanez paid tribute to France's unbreakable belief after they kept their hopes of Six Nations glory alive with a last-gasp win over Wales.

French hopes of a comeback victory appeared to have been dashed when they had lock Paul Willemse sent off and a try chalked off in one fell swoop by the TMO with 67 minutes gone.

That left Fabien Galthie's side a man down and 10 points behind a Wales side who looked destined to complete a Grand Slam in Paris.

However, the visitors lost both Taulupe Faletau and Liam Williams to the sin bin in quick succession before Charles Ollivon crossed the line and Romain Ntamack converted to reduce the deficit to three.

And Brice Dulin broke Welsh hearts in the 82nd minute as he made the hosts' extra man tell, touching down after the ball had been worked quickly to the left.

Reflecting on the drama, team manager Ibanez told the BBC: "It was an incredible finish. Mixed emotions. It was a fantastic battle for the whole game and obviously, we got the win but it's just incredible for the boys, a massive effort.

"At times during the game, we were under massive pressure. Wales scored their opportunities, we missed a few opportunities, made a few mistakes during the game.

"But in the end what really matters in sport is just to believe and that's what the boys did until the end thanks to magnificent tries."

Asked if he thought France's hopes of winning had gone when Willemse was dismissed, Ibanez heaped further praise on the players' character.

He added: "Yeah, but you still have to believe in yourself when you start the game of rugby. 

"The intensity, the battle was just immense. Credit to Wales, they fought until the end, but the boys showed so much character. 

"I think, in the end, it's going to give a lot of confidence to the boys for the next game."

That next game pits France against Scotland at Stade de France on Friday, with the hosts knowing that a bonus-point win by a margin of 21 points would see them crowned champions.

On refocusing for that challenge, Ibanez said: "It's pretty simple. We're still in it and the next game will define our Six Nations. 

"We still have a chance to win the Six Nations so let's celebrate tonight in the changing room and then tomorrow we are going to regroup and work hard as we did this week."

Brice Dulin scored a try with the final play after the 80-minute mark to earn France a thrilling 32-30 victory over Wales at the Stade de France that denied their opponents a Grand Slam and keeps their own Six Nations title hopes alive.

Wales led 30-20 with 10 minutes to play in Paris and had a one-man advantage after Paul Willemse was sent off, but Taulupe Faletau and Liam Williams were both sin-binned in quick succession and that sparked a remarkable turnaround.

Dulin touched down in the 82nd minute to secure a victory that leaves France needing another bonus-point win at home to Scotland next Friday – a fixture pushed back due to a coronavirus outbreak in their camp – to finish above Wales.

The incredible late drama followed an equally lively first half in which four tries were shared, but Wales' failure to see out the job means their fate is no longer in their own hands.

Zinedine Zidane is baffled by Karim Benzema's continued absence from the France squad after the striker scored twice to help Real Madrid record a 3-1 win over Celta Vigo on Saturday.  

The Frenchman managed a brace inside the opening 30 minutes to put Los Blancos 2-0 up, then turned provider for Marco Asensio's late third after Santi Mina had pulled one back for the hosts.  

Benzema has scored in each of his last six games in all competitions (nine goals), equalling his best scoring streak for Madrid (also six games between January and February 2016). 

It was his fifth LaLiga brace of the season, just one behind the six he achieved in 2011-12. 

Benzema has not represented his country since 2015 after being investigated in relation to an alleged attempt to blackmail his international team-mate Mathieu Valbuena.  

"For people who like football, seeing Karim is a luxury because we enjoy him and his team-mates do too," Zidane told a media conference.

"How can we understand why Karim doesn't go with the national team? There are many who don't understand it. 

"But it's better for me as the coach of Madrid that he stays. He has done a great job for us." 

The result moved Madrid above Barcelona into second, three points behind Atleti, but Diego Simeone's men can restore the six-point advantage over their neighbours if they overcome Deportivo Alaves on Sunday. 

Madrid's unbeaten LaLiga away run now stands at 10 games – the first time they have achieved this since May 2016 when they went 11 without defeat on the road – and Zidane was pleased with how his side navigated a potentially tricky fixture.   

"It's not easy. You can't think you're going to score four, five or six goals," he added. 

"It's getting more and more complicated. In the end, I'll stick with the game we played, suffering in the second half but controlling the game. There was a rival and we controlled them well. We deserved the triumph.  

"We have to continue with what we are doing. We are in a good moment and we enter the final stretch where everything is played." 

Madrid host Eibar in LaLiga on April 3 following the international break.

Wales need a victory against France in Paris to reclaim the Six Nations crown, and complete a Grand Slam in the process.

Wayne Pivac's team have enjoyed a sensational turnaround in fortunes this year and last week's 48-7 thrashing of lowly Italy made it four wins from four.

With France subsequently losing to England at Twickenham, Wales will wrap up the title with a win on Saturday, while even a losing bonus point could be enough, though that may still leave the door open for Les Bleus to snatch glory should they win their postponed fixture against Scotland.

England are well out of the race, but their captain Owen Farrell is eyeing up a points landmark when the 2020 champions take on Ireland in Dublin.

Scotland, meanwhile, round off what will ultimately go down as a frustrating campaign against Italy.

We use Opta data to preview the round-five, Super Saturday encounters.

 

SCOTLAND V ITALY

FORM

Scotland have won their last five Six Nations games against Italy – the previous 10 clashes between the sides had seen them share five wins each.

Italy have lost 52 of 54 away games in the Six Nations, with their only two victories on the road coming in Scotland in 2007 and 2015.

That victory at Murrayfield in 2015 was Italy's last in the competition. Their losing streak now stands at 31 games, and they will pick up the wooden spoon for the 16th time in Six Nations history.

ONES TO WATCH

Scotland have the best tackle success rate (92 per cent) of any side in this year's competition. Hamish Watson leads the way in that regard, completing all 44 of his attempted tackles – he has made 133 consecutive tackles in the tournament without missing one, the second-longest such run in Six Nations history, behind Lionel Nallet's 154 for France.

Italy's Sebastian Negri has made 127 post-contact metres in the 2021 Six Nations, the most of any forward in the championship.

IRELAND V ENGLAND

FORM

England have won their last two meetings with Ireland in the Six Nations and could win three in a row against them for only the second time, after doing so between 2012 and 2014.

Ireland lost to France in their last home game, only once before have they suffered defeat in back-to-back home games in the Six Nations – in 2010 versus Scotland at Croke Park and 2011 versus France at the Aviva Stadium.

Jones' England have won their last four Tests against Ireland, preventing them from scoring any first-half points in their last two meetings and scoring an average of 4.3 tries per game in that run.

ONES TO WATCH

CJ Stander announced his retirement this week, with the 31-year-old set to hang up his boots at the end of the season. This will be his final appearance for Ireland, having won his 50th cap in the 27-24 win over Scotland in round four.

Owen Farrell, son of Ireland coach Andy, is the top scorer in the Six Nations this year (44) and is just six points away from 500 in the championship. Only Ronan O'Gara (557) has reached that milestone exclusively in the Six Nations (since 2000).

FRANCE V WALES

FORM

Wales are bidding to win a sixth Six Nations title (since 2000), only England (seven) have won the championship more often. If they win this match it would be their fifth
Grand Slam – no other side has more than three.

Recent history is on Wales' side heading to the Stade de France. They have won three of their last four away games against Les Bleus in the Six Nations (L1), triumphing in their last trip to Paris (24-19 in 2019) despite trailing by 16 points at half-time – the biggest comeback for a team in the competition. 

Indeed, pre-tournament favourites France have won only two of their last nine Six Nations games against Wales (L7) after winning nine of the previous 12 (L3).

ONES TO WATCH

Antoine Dupont already has four try assists in this Six Nations, only five players have ever recorded more in an edition of the championship, with Frederic Michalak
(seven in 2006) the only Frenchman to do so.

Louis Rees-Zammit is the joint top try scorer in the 2021 Six Nations (four, level with England's Anthony Watson). Shane Williams (six in 2008) is the only Welsh player to score more than four in an edition of the tournament.

France will face Scotland in a potentially decisive delayed Six Nations fixture on March 26.

The match was postponed from February 28 following a coronavirus outbreak in the French squad.

But it has found a new date in Paris next Friday, outside of the international window, tournament organisers confirmed.

It is reported the Premiership will allow key Scotland players to feature in the match, with France's Top 14 potentially following suit.

The game could yet decide the destination of this year's Six Nations title.

France are third heading into the final scheduled weekend of the competition and they host unbeaten leaders Wales this Saturday.

Victory for Wales would seal a Grand Slam triumph, but a France win could give them the opportunity to snatch glory against Scotland six days later.

In France, they still speak joyously of Philippe Saint-Andre's wonder try at Twickenham, that majestic blue wave that swept from one end of the great stadium to the other, resulting in a score under the posts.

What a score that was, voted many years as Twickenham's 'try of the century', Blanco to Sella to Camberabero to Saint-Andre. The punch of the air, the high fives, the hugs. The wanton joie de vivre of it all.

But it came in a losing cause, on the final day of the 1991 Five Nations, in a championship decider. Some consolation, but a consolation nonetheless.

It was Geoff Cooke's team who lifted the trophy, Will Carling the beaming captain, the champagne spraying in England's dressing room.

France were a joy to watch, those great names still resonate, and they were so close to sashaying and side-stepping their way to a glorious Grand Slam.

So close. They finished second. The first losers.

Thirty years on from that March classic and there was nothing at Twickenham on Saturday that will be remembered quite so fondly as that vintage Saint-Andre moment, but there was so nearly an outcome that could have banished many bleak French memories from trips to London. Instead, England added to that long list.

Before Maro Itoje burrowed over in the 76th minute, this was poised to be a tale of a great French win, after a captivating clash. It would have been a third win in three games in this year's championship, talk would have turned to the Grand Slam.

Delightful tries from Antoine Dupont and Damian Penaud, stemming from that great Gallic brand of running rugby, were of the sort Blanc, Sella and co would have been proud.

Suspicions of a Twickenham hex hanging over Les Bleus were about to be banished. England had won nine of their 10 previous home games against France in the Six Nations, including the last seven in a row, but their dominance was about to be halted by a French side with bulldog spirit to match their silky skills.

Fabien Galthie was on the brink of getting one over on Eddie Jones, who was facing the prospect of his Red Rose losing a third match in four.

It would have been an eighth win in their last nine Six Nations games for France.

And then along came Itoje. England were over.

Weren't they?

France clung to the hope Teddy Thomas had held Itoje up. Referee Andrew Brace felt Thomas may have done just that, but the TMO knew better.

After what felt like an age, the try was given and French hearts broke. They lost 23-20.

What an achievement it would have been for Galthie's side to cross La Manche and return to Marcoussis triumphant.

Last month's major COVID-19 outbreak in their camp was worrying from a health perspective but came in tandem with questions about conduct and protocol too, with Galthie eventually exonerated despite leaving the squad bubble to watch his son play a rugby game, and no blame apportioned.

This France side re-emerged and played with verve from the first minute - Dupont crossed after just 65 seconds following lovely work from Thomas - before Anthony Watson replied as England reined in their visitors.

France struck again in the 32nd minute, electric play from the backs in blue ending with Penaud dancing in on the right.

Owen Farrell and Matthieu Jalibert kept the score ticking along from the kicking tee, then with time running out Itoje had the determining say.

"We are playing lovely rugby," France back-rower Gregory Alldritt told ITV after the final whistle. "We are enjoying playing all together on the pitch.

"We will go back to work on Monday and have a big, big game next week and we need to prepare for this game."

France went down in this game, but they are not out. The Six Nations title could yet be heading to Paris, even if the Grand Slam will not.

Wales, now the only team left in contention for a clean sweep of wins, will aim to complete a perfect campaign in Paris next Saturday night.

Given how they took this game to England, and how close they came to a famous victory, expect Galthie's men to rise again for the challenge of the arriving Red Dragons.

This was England's day in the end, but you still got the feeling this might be a French side who in the near future won't have to settle for consolation prizes or being the first losers. That Wales game will be titanic, and revealing.

France boss Fabien Galthie said his team "lost control" against England as Maro Itoje's late try allowed the hosts to snatch a 23-20 victory at Twickenham.

In a sizzling Six Nations match, France went ahead through Antoine Dupont after just 65 seconds and led 20-13 early in the second half.

They were looking like earning a first victory in the championship in London since 2005 until England came back strongly in the closing stages.

Itoje crossed in the 76th minute, with a TMO verdict showing he had just managed to ground the ball.

Galthie told broadcaster France 2: "In the second period, we lost control of the match. We backed off. We held the line until Maro Itoje scored.

"The English ended up stronger, they managed to occupy the field more than we did. The team had a big game. 

"We were ahead until three minutes from the end, but that's not enough."

France had won their opening two matches before a COVID-19 outbreak in the squad caused the clash with Scotland to be postponed.

Talk of a Grand Slam would have abounded had they held on against England, but it was not to be.

Galthie added in a news conference: "The two teams delivered a great match, before a denouement that must be digested.

"It played out once again in the final minutes. But above all, I am proud of my players, of their solidarity.

"It's a game that makes you grow. We didn't win but they felt we could win it. There are two, three key moments that perhaps would have allowed us to finish it more comfortably.

"In the end, the English dispossessed us of the ball because we conceded penalties, lost balls. But that's good. The team learns."

France face Grand Slam-chasing Wales next Saturday in Paris, knowing a victory over the Red Dragons would keep hopes alive of winning the championship.

Galthie added, according to Le Figaro, that France would react "by keeping the positives".

"We will digest this result together and switch to Wales now," he said. "That match starts right away. It depends on our ability to share and experience together the frustration to plan for the match that awaits us next Saturday."

Eddie Jones was left wishing Twickenham had been packed full of fans to see England's gutsy Six Nations win over France.

The hosts ended France's dreams of a first Grand Slam since 2010 as Maro Itoje's late try secured a hard-earned 23-20 victory on Saturday.

It was a fine response from the Red Rose after disappointing losses to Scotland and Wales either side of a routine win over Italy.

But head coach Jones wanted to share in the glory with England's supporters, with coronavirus restrictions depriving them of the opportunity to witness a fine performance first-hand.

"I just wish there were 82,000 fans here," Jones told ITV, having seen his side fight back from Antoine Dupont's try after just 65 seconds.

"It was a good, tough game of rugby with good fight from both teams and a bit of drama at the end.

"Since the Scotland game we have played with a lot of fight and energy.

"We thought France would come out hard early. They haven't had a game for a while and they were fresh. We had to be with them at half-time - that was our big job.

"We thought we would get them in the second half and we did.

"We've felt since the autumn we have to change our game a bit because the laws are moving to make the game faster.

"Our plan is to go to the 2023 World Cup as a good set-piece team and a team that can move."

England conclude their 2021 Six Nations campaign in Dublin next weekend.

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