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France's credentials, England's chance, Sanches' potential, Argentina worry

As the excitement in Europe's domestic leagues builds up, it's all stop and time for international week.

Boring? Pointless? Not a bit of it. Here are five stories to watch closely over the next seven days.

How good are France?

It is nearly two years since Euro 2016 hosts France last played a competitive game of football and so assessing their level is a little tricky.

A lack of competitive games doesn't necessarily inhibit progress, of course. It certainly didn't hurt Aime Jacquet's side in the buildup to the 1998 World Cup they won on home soil. And equally, great pre-tournament form guarantees nothing, as Michel Platini discovered in 1992, when Les Bleus were eliminated in the group stage. But the signs for Didier Deschamps' side are promising.

There is nothing that can be read into France's 2-0 defeat to England at Wembley on Nov. 17. That was not a football match -- that was a display of defiance and solidarity and should be remembered as such. Given the horror of what happened in Paris the previous Friday, it's little wonder that France's previous game has also been all but forgotten too. But it was a 2-0 win over world champions Germany.

Of all the nations in competition this summer, France have arguably the most depth in every position and perhaps the greatest range of attributes. There is pace, strength, stamina and skill. Allied to home advantage, you have to make them favourites. Good performances against Netherlands (Friday) and Russia (Tuesday) will strengthen that feeling.

Are England dark horses?

England's traditional role in an international tournament is to arrive with a self-important flourish, dramatically underperform and then either leave at the first available opportunity or on penalties, having somehow trudged through to the knockout stages.

But this year might be different. English fans remain understandably pessimistic, but it's interesting how many observers on the continent, including Germany's Joachim Low, view their chances.

Much depends on manager Roy Hodgson and the courage of his convictions. If England revert back to the bad old ways of crowbarring in big names at the cost of any kind of cohesion (remember Steven Gerrard, the left winger?) they won't trouble anyone in France.

But if Hodgson is bold enough to let Harry Kane lead the line, to give freedom to Dele Alli, to allow youth to flourish, then who knows? There's no Wayne Rooney for the games against Germany (Saturday) and Netherlands (Tuesday), so it's the perfect time to see how the younger generation perform.

This is the last chance for fringe players to make their case, so expect the likes of Danny Rose, Eric Dier and Danny Drinkwater to do their utmost to break into Hodgson's final squad.

Renato Sanches the breakout star?

There's always one young footballer who bursts into mainstream consciousness at every tournament, and the smart money says that it's going to be Renato Sanches this summer. The 18-year-old midfielder only broke into the Benfica side this season, but he's caught the eye of some of the biggest clubs in Europe. Manchester United are thought to be preparing a £60 million bid for his services, and he's certainly got what it takes to survive in the fast, physical and occasionally brutal Premier League.

Sanches is a dynamo; a box-to-box midfielder with lungs the size of suitcases and pace to burn. He is always eager for the ball, dropping back to his centre-backs to collect it and then bursting up the pitch like a Labrador in sight of the park.

He's not the finished article by any extent. His passing isn't always accurate and he sometimes seems to be in so much of a hurry that his teammates aren't always on his wavelength. But he's a player who can change a game and he's been rewarded with an international call-up. If he gets his chance against Bulgaria (Friday) or Belgium (Tuesday), you might want to keep an eye on him.

Who will "do a Costa Rica?" at Euro 2016?

Austria vs. Albania (Saturday) might not first appear to be a game you should be watching, but these two sides could be very interesting come the summer. Neither are likely to win the tournament, but given that the expanded format means that two draws could take a nation into the knockout stage, and reflecting on what we learned from Costa Rica's exploits in the World Cup, there's no reason why one of them can't cause the bigger names some problems.

Albania have never qualified for a senior international tournament (and have only ever qualified for two youth tournaments), but you should be very careful not to dismiss their chances. Manager Gianni de Biasi has cultivated a tight, well-drilled team capable of breaking out on the counter-attack. They've beaten France and Portugal and it will be fascinating to see what they can do as the pressure and excitement builds.

Austria are a very different proposition. They have first class outfield players in the form of Bayern Munich's David Alaba, Stoke's Marko Arnautovic and the towering striker, Basel's Marc Janko. They obliterated Sweden 4-1 in a breathtaking display last September. They should be watched closely.

What's going on with Argentina and Chile?

It's not only Europe's biggest teams who face off this week. There are crucial games in South America, where the qualification campaign for the 2018 World Cup is not going entirely as expected. Ecuador lead the way with four wins from four, while confederation champions Chile and World Cup runners-up Argentina sit outside the automatic places. And they meet on Thursday night.

Lionel Messi will be 31 when the 2018 World Cup finishes, and if he isn't holding the trophy that night, it's very likely that he never will. But as it stands, Argentina won't even qualify. Gerardo Martino's side have only won one game so far, and it's no coincidence that Messi has missed every match with injury. Martino called for calm in December, but if his side don't get a result here, or even worse against Bolivia on Wednesday, there'll be no chance of that.

Chile's situation is a little more positive. They have at least won two of their four games including an opening night victory over Brazil, but a comprehensive 3-0 drubbing at the hands of Uruguay has dented the nation's confidence. They need to get back on track, and quickly.

Iain Macintosh covers the Premier League and Champions League for ESPN FC. Follow him on Twitter @IainMacintosh.

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