Now the dust has finally settled following France’s limp exit from Euro 2012 at the hands of Spain, the French Football Federation and Laurent Blanc have some big decisions to make before deciding whether to part ways. Les Bleus are due to embark upon the 2014 World Cup campaign and more importantly begin planning for the 2016 European Championships which will be hosted on home soil and the FFF are in desperate need of someone committed to seeing through both projects.
On the evidence of this summer’s showing the French are not quite over 2010’s South African debacle. A painful exit from the tournament has been exacerbated by the renewed tension between the squad and the French media following Samir Nasri’s altercation with a member of the press which Blanc and the FFF have deemed “intolerable.” This now puts les Bleus back in a similar situation to 2010 when a period of soul-searching began with a number of bans being imposed on players involved in the mutiny directed against manager Raymond Domenech. A similar purge could be necessary this time around but for different reasons.
This summer’s Euros was a major chance for France to prove that they had overcome their previous problems and had once again become a force to be reckoned with on the international stage. Instead, the team exited the tournament with a whimper and a number of players failed to perform and live up to their reputations. The campaign started well enough, a creditable draw against England was followed by an impressive 2-0 victory over co-hosts Ukraine but it was after the 2-0 defeat to Sweden in final Group D match that cracks began to emerge. Blanc admitting to the press that there had been some discussions after Olivier Giroud spoke out about the side’s unhappiness following the result prompted speculation over a lack of unity.
Those reports are fairly close to the mark. One of the hardest things Blanc has had to do since taking the reins has been to keep the considerably large number of egos in the French setup happy and it is obvious that this time that has not been possible. Nasri had been at odds with the media since the start of the tournament and 2010 ringleader Patrice Evra is still part of the squad, frustrated at losing his place in the side mid-tournament to Gael Clichy. As well as a number of other survivors from South Africa there are certain members of the team deemed to be prima-donnas, players with ideas above their stations and now may be the time to eradicate these elements as once again they corroded France’s hopes of achieving anything.
There is experience in the current squad which is what promising players such as Yann M’Vila, Olivier Giroud, Hatem Ben Arfa and Jérémy Ménez need to help them develop into international stars. However, I question the attitudes of some of the players in these positions of experience because I don’t feel I saw anything from them during the tournament to suggest that they are prepared to take responsibility for the side and to lead by example when the team find themselves in trouble.
Nobody sought to take charge of the team when they found themselves floundering against Sweden and there is only so much that captain Hugo Lloris can do from his isolated position at the back. The same can be said of the Spanish match where the more experienced elements of a defensively-minded side were barely recognisable.
You could be fooled in thinking that France had no strength in depth but actually looking at Blanc’s squad in Poland and Ukraine, he had more variety than most coaches have had the fortune to pick from and he had an abundance of attacking players at his disposal when he needed to change the side’s approach. In addition to a misfiring Karim Benzema he had Giroud on the bench as well as Ménez, Ben Arfa and Valbuena who can all play in attacking roles so to suggest that Blanc had run out of options against Sweden and Spain is untrue. Instead I think it is fair to say that Blanc never really had a plan B. Benzema preferred to play a more withdrawn role and with a lack of a target man up top ahead of him it starved Franck Ribéry, Malouda, Nasri and Ménez of the ball at times and as a result France’s potent attacking threat never materialised apart from a fleeting appearance against Ukraine.
The future is bright for les Bleus, there are plenty of talented prospects coming through who will be ready in time for Brazil in 2014 and France two years later, so maybe the time has come to hand over to new generation. Players such as Mapou Yanga Mbiwa should eclipse Philippe Mexès ahead of the World Cup, same for M’Vila with Alou Diarra and Ménez with Malouda. Then next on the list would be dealing with the players that have a less than savoury attitude and replacing them with hungry young talent who have a grounded sense of their own importance. Evra could make way for Bordeaux’s talented left-back Benoit Benoît Trémoulinas whilst I would be surprised to see Nasri in a French shirt again for a long time. Losing an element like the Manchester City midfielder will also make it easier to accommodate a talent like Benzema who just does not seem comfortable leading the line at international level.
The FFF should take a leaf out of Germany’s book and lead the charge in a re-birth of the way footballers are brought through and developed ahead of 2016. 2014 will be an excellent field test for some of the next generation but les Bleus need to get it right by the time the Euros come to France where they will be expected to perform well. Only a complete overhaul of the current international setup will allow the team to fully profit from a fantastic generation of young talent.
Is Laurent Blanc the right man to lead France? Only time will tell. The former Bordeaux manager is currently in talks with his superiors following the competition and the fallout is likely to have casualties. Whether he is actually one of them right now is debatable, but given the growing tension between himself and President Noël Le Graët and the rumoured interest from overseas sides it appears unlikely he will be there for both the World Cup and the Euros.
In that case, the FFF will need to find a successor and make sure it is someone who is not only committed to the development of the current pool of considerable talent but is also prepared to take charge of the side all the way until after 2016. With few options currently on the domestic scene, it is hard to see and obvious successor. Making a foreign appointment would be foolish and detrimental to the side’s chances given the lack of success that other nations have had with coaches from abroad.
For now, France seem to have the right man for the job but need to conduct a review of the characters within the squad and be ruthless when deciding certain international fates. Watching les Bleus this summer has been like watching paint dry at times and if this is to be avoided, the younger and more vibrant generation now need to be given a chance to shine before they are choked out by members of an inefficient old guard who have spent too long being fawned over without delivering anything of substance.
So France have crashed out of Euro 2012 following an unsurprising 2-0 defeat to Spain, their first ever tournament victory over les Bleus, thanks to two Xabi Alonso goals in Donetsk. The Spanish were also helped largely by Laurent Blanc’s ultra-conservative team selection and France’s anaemic attack given that only Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema could be counted as attacking threats in the starting XI.
Blanc’s gameplan was evidently to soak up wave after wave of Spanish pressure and then hit Vicente Del Bosque’s side on the counterattack. However, this plan was blown away by Alonso’s 19th minute header and France never really looked like getting back in it from there.
Les Bleus showed some fight in the second half but were once again lacking penetration up front and struggled to create any clear chances. Alonso notched a second though when Anthony Réveillère brought down Pedro Rodriguez and the Real Madrid man converted the spot kick. There was further controversy after the whistle as midfielder Samir Nasri was involved in an altercation with a French journalist, capping a miserable end to a tournament that promised so much but delivered so little for the French.
Suspended defender Philippe Mexès was replaced by Laurent Koscielny, Réveillère came in at right-back as Mathieu Debuchy pushed forward on to right midfield. Yann M'Vila assumed the sole defensive midfield role and was supported by Yohan Cabaye and Florent Malouda.
Karim Benzema yet again failed to register his first goal of the tournament and cut a frustrated figure up top, Real Madrid teammate Iker Casillas was rarely tested by the former OL man.
Spain immediately took control of proceedings and made the breakthrough in the 19th minute. Andrés Iniesta released Jordi Alba in behind Réveillère and the left-back's cross picked out the unmarked Alonso for the opening goal, heading past Hugo Lloris who could do nothing to prevent it.
Les Bleus began to enjoy more possession as the first period pressed on however; their best chance came from a Cabaye free-kick from distance that was tipped over by Casillas, a familiar story in this tournament.
Blanc resisted the need to make changes as half-time and the side suffered a disappointing exit as their attacking deficiencies cost them dearly.
Debuchy, Benzema and Ribéry looked more dangerous in the second period as they started to enjoy some possession and came close to the Spanish penalty area. However, they were unable to muster anything of real note and fans were left baffled by Blanc’s decision to only introduce Ligue 1 top scorer last year Olivier Giroud with ten minutes remaining.
In all, a very disappointing display with France lacking direction and drive meaning that Spain never even had to be at their best to reach the semi-finals. Blanc’s team selection showed far too much respect to the reigning champions and this generation will now have to wait until 2014 for another chance to prove themselves, assuming they qualify.
Spain now progress to the semi-finals of the competition where they will meet neighbours Portugal in the Donbass Arena in Donetsk.
More to come on France's failure...
France approach Saturday’s Euro 2012 quarter-final clash with Spain with little to shout about. Although history is on their side, the realists amongst us will expect the defending champions to dispatch les Bleus easily given their sorry showing in their final Group D clash with Sweden. A lacklustre France outfit succumbed to a 2-0 defeat on Tuesday and French boss Laurent Blanc has already admitted that his side face an uphill task.
So what does Blanc have left that he can change to spark his side into life? Firstly, striker Karim Benzema has still not found the net yet this tournament. In fact, only Jérémy Ménez has scored out of Blanc’s attacking options in his 23-man squad. The Paris Saint-Germain player was dropped for the Sweden game depriving the side of his direct approach, something they will need to rediscover if they are to find a way past Jordi Alba at left-back and Andrés Iniesta on the left of midfield.
One way to ensure this without losing anything in terms of creativity is to possibly consider playing Benzema as the number 10 with Ménez and Franck Ribéry either side utilising their pace to outflank opponents and benefitting from Benzema’s natural tendency to take up a more withdrawn position that better suits him laying goals on rather than scoring them.
Without trying him there, Blanc will never know if Benzema can adequately fill Zinedine Zidane’s shoes as France’s new number ten but he will need a far more creative presence behind a predatory goalscorer like Olivier Giroud if he wants to reach the semi-finals. Either he accepts Bezema’s preference to play the withdrawn role or he risks benching him and disturbing the team chemistry. Alternatively he could spring a huge surprise and try new Lille signing Marvin Martin in that role despite having used him relatively little this tournament, but given his club form last year for Sochaux this would be a highly risky move.
Who then to lead the line? On the bench Blanc has 21-goal Montpellier striker Giroud who has yet to really be tested this tournament. A few cameo appearances as a substitute have been all that we have seen from the soon-to-be Arsenal striker, Saturday night’s showdown could be the perfect place to demonstrate just how complete a player he is. Moreover, having him up front alongside Benzema could finally be the spark that the Real Madrid man needs to get his tournament rolling.
A number of clever assists cannot paper over the cracks and disguise the fact that the former Lyon prodigy has looked shy in front of goal and has preferred to limit himself to shots from range and laying the ball on for his teammates to profit. Giroud is also capable of providing assists but show a more ruthless streak in front of goal, perhaps with him as the focal point of the attack les Bleus can find another gear. The 25-year old’s unselfish play can bring players like Ménez, Ribéry and Benzema into the game whilst he will also be the man to finish any chance put in front of him. With very little left to lose following the revelation of yet another internal squad conflict during an international tournament, Giroud could be Blanc’s ace up his sleeve.
That said, France have looked far from convincing at the back so far this campaign so the suspension of AC Milan’s Philippe Mexès could come as a blessing in disguise. Whilst Mexès has not looked out of his depth alongside Adil Rami in the group stages, there is something disconcerting about a defender who looks like a yellow card waiting to happen being paired alongside a physically commanding presence who lacks any real footballing savvy. Mexès’ replacement will be Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny, solid and unspectacular but a far more calming influence on a player who is still finding his feet on the international stage like Rami, the former Lorient man whilst not vastly experience himself, has looked at complete ease in French bleu.
Rami and Mexes are essentially similar players in that both try to take the ball out of defence however, whilst Rami makes the most of his considerable physical advantage, Mexes is the one left to sweep up the mistakes that Rami makes or the chances that pass him by. When the former Lille man brings the ball out of defence he more often than not loses possession, so with Mexes being the one who has to step in to bail him out it was inevitable that France’s vice-captain would find himself suspended at some point this tournament. Koscielny and Rami will be a more solid pairing and if you add that to the fact that Spain, despite trouncing the Republic of Ireland in their second game, have not looked like scoring particularly readily, you feel that if France can get their attacking unit in gear then they stand a chance of knocking the holders out.
History is on France’s side, the last time the pair faced each other was in 2006 when France beat Spain en route to the World Cup final where they were defeated on penalties. Les Bleus’ victory over Ukraine was their first in a competitive international tournament since their semi-final victory over Portugal in that same competition. How France would love to roll back the years on Saturday and repeat their 3-1 victory over la Furia Roja, but it will be difficult without the instrumental ‘Zizou’ this time around.
Laurent Blanc has already started the French mind games ahead of les Bleus’ showdown with defending champions Spain on Saturday night by attempting to shift the focus on his team away from the recent and well-publicised dressing room bust-up following their last Group D match with Sweden.
Montpellier striker Olivier Giroud claims that a shouting match ensued between certain members of the team and Blanc did little to dismiss those claims. The French coach is now revelling in his sides’ role as underdogs and has made no secret of his disappointment that finishing in second place has drawn them against the current World champions.
"You know, when you're used to getting good results and then you get a bad result, it's understandable that there's a bit of frustration, a bit of tension. On Tuesday we were all disappointed, the players and the coaching staff.
"We were expecting a tough game, but that tough? No. Sweden played with heart. Physically, they were very well prepared and they had a player up front capable of making the difference.
“It was very frustrating. Take the Mexes yellow card for example, it shows that we weren't cam and in control out there. It's a reflection of the whole team and the whole game where we just never found the right rhythm.
“I will admit that it's hard to imagine us upsetting Spain after a performance like that.”
Although skirting the issue of the rumoured squad disharmony to an extent, Blanc has acknowledged that the side have again come close to self-destruction. He insists however that there will be no repeat of the 2010 World Cup fiasco.
"We took a bit of time to calm everyone down and coming back to Donetsk from Kiev to our base camp allowed us to do that and be a bit more at peace.
"It did delay us in terms of when we could start preparing for the game with Spain but you have priorities that have to be dealt with.
"But, since Wednesday, everything has been about working towards the game with Spain.
Assistant manager Alain Boghossian has also denied rumours of a rift and insists that a late night meeting in the wake of the Sweden defeat, orchestrated by Blanc, has saved the squad and maintained some harmony in the camp.
"After everyone had a cold shower and time to cool off, we sat down together at the hotel and talked things through face to face” he said.
"Everybody said what he needed to say. That was important because it's like being in a couple in that if you don't talk to each other, things can build up.
"I'd have been much more worried if there had been no reaction at all and what happened after the game in the dressing room was normal.”
The stories of dressing room tension are threatening to de-rail France’s Euro campaign and it was Giroud’s quotes after the game against Sweden on Tuesday that has drawn attention to the matter. The striker however has justified his words and feels that the squad are stronger for the experience.
"It's bizarre to qualify with a loss. Yes there was a bit of anger. I hope this helps us ask the right questions of ourselves. We analysed things when we had cooled down a little and feel happier about it. When you talk too soon after a match, sometimes you say stupid things."
Karim Benzema will be facing a number of Real Madrid teammates when the two sides meet on Saturday, the former Lyon striker though pulled no punches admitting that if les Bleus are as lacklustre against Spain as they were against Sweden then they will be on the next plane home.
"We just didn't show up and playing Spain is our consolation prize. If we want to achieve something during these European championships, we can't reproduce this type of performance."
Saturday’s meeting with Spain will bring France back to the Donbass Arena in Donetsk where France have played the majority of their games so far. Hoping for a performance that will be more electric in style than the weather they play in, the odds are stacked against France. They do have one thing going for them though; the last team to beat Spain in an international quarter final was themselves en route to the World Cup Final in 2006. Will lightning strike a second time?
France still progressed to the quarter-finals of Euro 2012 despite a dour 2-0 loss to Sweden in the final Group D game on Tuesday. It is the first time since 2006 that France have escaped from the group stages of an international tournament and they now face Spain. However, the French camp is now clouded in controversy as in-fighting threatens to de-rail les Bleus’ Euro hopes.
Laurent Blanc can have no complaints about the match; his side were second best for the entire 90 minutes and could have lost by a greater margin. However, Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s contender for goal of the tournament and Sebastian Larsson’s late second were the least Erik Hamren’s men deserved and Blanc’s 23-match unbeaten run as France manager crashed to a close.
Blanc will have had time to reflect upon his team selection ahead of Saturday’s clash with the defending champions and given how well he played against Ukraine and how his replacement Hatem Ben Arfa struggled to impose himself on the Swedes. The decision to swap Yohan Cabaye for Yann M’Vila will also be a point of debate for the manager, the change making France more defensive with two natural holding midfielders in the side.
France were slow and laboured giving off the air of a team that expected to advance and were not particularly worried about the threat Sweden posed, but more worryingly for les Bleus is the fact that the team were once again restricted to long shots and half chances by a side with a well-organised defence but relatively little in terms of star quality. It does not bode well ahead of a showdown with the likes of Sergio Ramos and Gerard Pique that Benzema and co could not find a way to put Andreas Isaksson under any sort of meaningful sustained pressure.
Ibrahimovic’s goal sparked the side into life but still it wasn’t enough to galvanise the side into finding the breakthrough and at the other end of the pitch Philippe Mexes had a torrid time trying to deal with Ola Toivonen and Ibrahimovic, the French defence falling apart after its first thorough examination.
It wasn’t until after the match though that the damage became clear; substitute Olivier Giroud speaking out after the match about a “shouting match” in the changing room and Blanc himself confirming the Montpellier man’s claims.
"When there's a victory, you accept things more and you're happier," he said.
"It kicked off a bit because all the players felt that everyone hadn't given everything. To win these types of matches, you have to play well and be committed.
"When you've lost, you're more hot-blooded. It got heated, but we all cooled down after a good shower.”
With rumours of a divided camp having already been dismissed, Blanc does appear to have a number of egos in the side that need to be appeased. Samir Nasri’s name in particular has been linked with a number of flashpoints that have increased the tension within the side, but with little over 24 hours to go until kick-off Blanc is trying to take some positives out of his squad’s reaction to the defeat.
"When you feel something, you have to say it. It's not just down to the technical staff.”
"The players have to talk to each other because it can be constructive. It shows that there's a reaction, some electricity. I hope that there will be some more against Spain, but in the right sense."
One thing France do have in their favour ahead of Saturday night: when they last met Spain in the quarter-final of a major tournament six years ago, they beat them to progress to the final.
Following Friday’s thunderous victory over Euro 2012 co-hosts Ukraine, France are in confident mood ahead of their final Group D match against Sweden on Tuesday. Les Bleus need just a point to qualify for the quarter-finals and if they can secure top spot they would likely avoid defending champions Spain.
France registered their first competitive victory at a tournament in six years on Friday when they saw off Ukraine in rain-swept Donetsk and Yohan Cabaye was one of the scorers.
"The coach selected a team he felt was capable of getting in behind the Ukrainian defence,” said the Newcastle midfielder. “We knew that their full-backs push up a lot and that's how we scored the first goal. For my first international goal, it is something that will live with me forever. When you score such an important goal you think of your loved ones. The memory of this goal will last a long, long time."
Franck Ribery is one part of the well-oiled attacking line-up that Laurent Blanc currently has at his disposal and the Bayern Munich man was delighted at how les Bleus fared despite the difficult conditions on Friday. However he insisted that there is much more to come from the French, particularly following the addition of Jeremy Menez to the starting line-up.
Speaking after the game Ribéry said: "Ménez needs to feel the confidence. Tonight he didn't lose his confidence despite those chances he missed. I told him: 'Keep going, you are going to win this for us!' The coach spoke to him too and that gave him a boost.”
"It's been six years since we last won a tournament match - that's massive. We let our hair down and we enjoyed ourselves. We have a young team, we always want to attack and score goals. The win is fantastic and now we have to build on it.”
The form of Karim Benzema and his tendency to drop back to create chances for his international teammates has led to questions over Blanc’s reluctance to start Montpellier hitman Olivier Giroud with the Real Madrid man tucked in behind him in the number 10 role. Despite only seeing action from the bench so far, Giroud remains upbeat about his experiences so far and is itching for his country to secure a berth in the quarter-finals.
“The Ukraine team came out to play football and that left us more space,” observed Ligue 1’s joint-top goalscorer last season. “The England team was very defensive. This evening we imposed our rhythm on the game from the outset, which is something we didn’t do against England. We were very good going forward, creating a lot of chances. However, the team has not reached its full potential yet."
Although left relatively untested in the Ukraine clash, goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris has been impressed by what he has seen so far from his teammates and in particular heaped praise upon Benzema.
"We won the battle for the midfield. We are a very young side and we need confidence to play well. Tonight we were very focused and determined to win. It's very important in this type of competition to keep improving, keep getting stronger and stronger. To qualify for the quarter-finals will be great to start with. We're growing in confidence thanks to the results and we always go out to win.”
“Karim Benzema was the difference again this evening. He set up both goals and worked hard for the team. He really is a great player."
With no major doubts and expected to make no changes to his starting line-up, Laurent Blanc is in a strong position heading into the clash against a Sweden side who know that they are already out of the tournament. Yann M’Vila is fit and could return but was overlooked in favour of Alou Diarra against Ukraine and Blanc is expected to stick with his former Bordeaux captain.
Manchester City’s Samir Nasri was delighted with the improved performance against Ukraine and is already casting an eye towards the knockout stages.
"We had the heart to win the Ukraine game, the opposite of what we did against England when we drew."
“We are feeling really good currently and in a positive mindset. We want to qualify. Whether we play Spain or not in the quarter-finals, it will be hard.”
"If you want to excel in this tournament you will have to play and beat the Spaniards and other big teams."
France take on Sweden on Tuesday in Kiev looking to retain top spot in Group D.
France registered their first competitive international victory in six years on Friday as they saw off Ukraine in rain-swept Donetsk to top Group D heading into the final round of fixtures on Tuesday.
The game was delayed by nearly an hour following a fierce electrical storm that broke just before kick-off. However, the break served to motivate France who came out flying and took a first tournament victory since their World Cup 2006 semi-final victory over Portugal.
Speaking after the game Blanc admitted that he feared the weather would wreak havoc with his game plan. "I feared the weather was going to handicap us a second time after our bad start against England. But that wasn't the case and the pitch was actually in very good condition.”
Les Bleus dominated proceedings and should have had more to show for their efforts than the two goals that won them the game. Jérémy Ménez and Yohan Cabaye scored a goal apiece within three early second half minutes to extend Blanc’s unbeaten run at the helm for France to 23 matches. Although the win means that his side only need a point from their final game with Sweden to qualify for the quarter-finals, Blanc will have been delighted with the way his changes to the team that drew with England had the desired effect and how much more threatening they looked with an improved attacking lineup.
"We knew that Ukraine would attack and leave us space,” said Blanc of his selection. “Ménez has one great quality for this scenario: he can use his pace and timing to get in behind defences. He is a player with immense talent, but still needs to grow in self-confidence on the international stage to fulfil his potential.”
Blanc introduced Ménez in place of Florent Malouda on the right side of midfield and Gaël Clichy instead of Patrice Evra at left-back, offering a more attacking look to the 4-3-3 that he chose to face England. The changes paid dividends as Ménez scored one and had another narrowly chalked off for offside, Cabaye netted a second after some great attacking build-up involving Karim Benzema and les Bleus could have had a spectacular third when the Newcastle midfielder’s shot cannoned off the woodwork after a breathtaking 20-pass move set up the chance.
The result now leaves Blanc with a number of things to be pleased about. Firstly, France’s potent attacking partnership of Benzema and Franck Ribéry has been complimented by the introduction of Ménez into the fold. The Paris Saint-Germain attacker adds a directness that was previously lacking with Malouda in the side and his pace adds to the short times it takes les Bleus to build-up an opportunity.
What is also evident is that Benzema could be France’s answer to the number 10 puzzle that has left them without an out-and-out striker at this year’s tournament so far. The Real Madrid man’s tendency to drop deep and his orchestrating of the two goals in Donetsk suggest he might be more comfortable playing in a more withdrawn role, perhaps behind Montpellier predator Olivier Giroud.
Secondly, Blanc is currently enjoying great success without needing to re-introduce Yann M’Vila to the side following his recovery from injury. Marseille midfielder and former Bordeaux captain Alou Diarra continues to deputise admirably leaving his former club manager with the pleasant headache of not feeling forced to re-integrate the Rennes holding midfielder until les Bleus are out of the group stage. Frustrating for M’Vila who is eager to impress after having been billed as one of the potential stars of the tournament before it started, but it is perhaps Blanc’s familiarity with Diarra from their together on the Gironde and his faith in his former captain that is currently holding this attack-minded midfield together.
Finally, given that France enjoyed near total domination of Ukraine the defence seemed far more settled as a result. Adil Rami although looking flustered on a couple of occasions, most notably when old stager Andriy Shevchenko managed to completely lose him with a simple drop of the shoulder in the first half in Donetsk, came through fine and Blanc will see no reason to make further changes to his defence. Les Bleus’ boss had been looking for an opportunity to bring Clichy in ahead of Evra and got it with the Manchester United man’s poor showing against England. However, he seems more content with his partnership of Rami and Philippe Mexès so will see no reason to change what now looks like a winning formula.
"We absolutely had to win this match, which meant we had to attack. At the moment, Clichy is in excellent form physically. He can get up and down so choosing him over Evra was a tactical choice.”
Sweden await in the final match of Group D on Tuesday having already been eliminated by England and Blanc will want to ensure that his side progress on top of the pile and avoid a potential meeting with defending champions Spain.
France and England may have shared a point on Monday evening in Donetsk after Samir Nasri’s fantastic strike cancelled out Joleon Lescott’s opener; however, France boss Laurent Blanc will have plenty to say to his players after witnessing a display that will have left Les Bleus feeling that they should have won.
Despite falling behind halfway through the first half after some disastrous set-piece defending, France looked good early on. After denying England a lot of the ball to start with, Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema and Nasri all linked up well to demonstrate their attacking intent, but it was the Three Lions that created the clearest early opportunity, which James Milner spurned. They took the lead after 30 minutes when Lescott met a Steven Gerrard free-kick following some non-existent marking.
Nasri almost got Les Bleus straight back in the game when he delivered a perfect corner for Alou Diarra to meet with a powerful header in the 35th minute. However, the Marseille man’s effort was saved by Joe Hart and neither Ribery nor Diarra could profit from the follow-ups.
The chance raised French hopes and the team responded four minutes later when Nasri netted the equaliser. The Manchester City schemer banged the ball in from the edge of the area after being teed up by Ribery, squeezing the ball through a crowd of players to beat Hart.
It was no less than Laurent Blanc's men deserved, but the second half proved more difficult to make the breakthrough. Les Bleus struggled to break down England’s defence as Roy Hodgson’s side looked happy to settle for a point, but France lacked impetus going forward and showed little creativity in the final third. Ashley Young and Danny Welbeck were contained well by Adil Rami and Philippe Mexes at the heart of France's defence in the second half, but their first-half showing left something to be desired.
The combination of Mexes and Rami has yet to fully gel in my opinion. Against England the partnership looked vulnerable, especially given Rami’s frequent surrender of possession and Mexes’ static positioning, which saw France caught out a number of times. Despite both players being very talented defenders, as a partnership I am not sure it works. Patrice Evra contributed little in the way of adding balance to the backline and Blanc could be tempted to introduce a more solid if unspectacular presence like Laurent Koscielny to add some substance to the defence. More likely could be that he decides to swap Evra, not the same player for his country as he is for his club, for the more dynamic Gael Clichy.
One positive to take from the match will be the amount of possession enjoyed by the side. The midfield saw a lot of the ball and dominated England at times; however, Blanc’s men did not build on this and seemed happy to try to find a way to pass their way towards goal. Benzema spent much of the game isolated and in that situation it seemed the perfect time to introduce Montpellier target man Olivier Giroud, perhaps leaving Benzema on the field, to take a more direct approach.
Benzema’s creativity and importance to this side cannot be questioned but, when needing a goal, Blanc could have tried the 21-goal Ligue 1 top scorer and given him a chance to play alongside the Real Madrid man. If he tucked Benzema in just behind Giroud in the No. 10 role, I feel that would give France a lot more attacking intent and a directness that is often lacking with such an abundance of creative midfielders populating the line-up.
That said, it’s a point in the bank, and a positive one at the end of the day despite the frustrating nature of the result. Next up: co-hosts Ukraine, who will be buoyed by Andriy Shevchenko’s terrific performance in their 2-1 win over Sweden. France will need a strong showing to give themselves a bit of time ahead of their final game against Sweden.
France are set to open their Euro 2012 campaign against England in Donetsk on Monday and whilst their preparations since the final warm-up victory over Estonia have not gone perfectly, Laurent Blanc still has more positive than negative headaches.
Although les Bleus’ first training session in their base in Kirsha was disrupted by a torrential downpour, Karim Benzema and a number of others have missed training through injury, it has done little to dampen the general optimism surrounding the side.
Leading the praise is former captain Zinedine Zidane who considers France one of the tournament’s main threats thanks to the form of influential duo Benzema and Franck Ribéry.
"This France side has the potential to do something great at the Euros" he told French radio station RTL last week. "With the Ribéry-Benzema partnership in such good form, they could really achieve something.”
"I hope they make a bright start in the tournament" he continued. "The opening game is so important but it won't be easy against England."
In addition to Benzema’s recent absence because of a back problem, Steve Mandanda, Blaise Matuidi, Yann M’Vila, Patrice Evra and Alou Diarra have also been spending time in the cryotherapy chamber. However, it is only M’Vila and Matuidi who are expected to miss the opening clash.
Benzema, who has been in inspired form in France’s recent games insists he will be fine for the England match and is excited about les Bleus’ chances in Poland and Ukraine.
"I feel good and it has been great to be in goalscoring form coming into the tournament. Sometimes you score, other times you don't. But I always stay calm. You must never panic. An attacker has to be part of the team play. Part of my game is to make space for my teammates. We're looking good after three very good matches. We're ready for the Euros."
Much is being made of the strong rapport that has been built-up by the Real Madrid striker and Bayern Munich’s Ribéry, and Benzema is delighted with their recent form.
"We've been playing so long together, Franck and I! We already showed our strong understanding in the last game. It's easy to play with him.”
Ribéry for his part says: "I would have liked my relationship with the France team to have always been this good. But it's especially good with Karim. We can find each other with our eyes closed. What's more, we get along really well away from football in our everyday life.”
The pair combined to devastating effect in France’s most recent warm-up match, a 4-0 win over Estonia, with both players getting on the scoresheet and providing for one another. A backheel assist for Ribéry’s goal was followed by a brace of his own for Benzema and the duo were in imperious form.
Following victories over Iceland (3-2) and Serbia (2-0) France ended their preparations in style and the Estonia result extends their unbeaten run to 20 matches going into the opening Group D clash with England. If the pair can maintain this form going into their next few games then les Bleus can harbour realistic designs on claiming the trophy, not just making it to the latter stages.
In-form France winger Franck Ribéry believes Les Bleus are in top shape going into their Euro 2012 opener with England in Donetsk on Monday defending a 21-match unbeaten run and recently spoke to the French media in Ukraine.
The squad arrived in Donetsk to set up their base and were immediately greeted by a howling storm. Having beaten minnows Estonia in their last warm-up match confidence is high as France approach the tournament and according to Ribéry the squad are more united than two years ago in South Africa.
"The training centre here is superb and we feel really comfortable" said the Bayern Munich star who is a survivor of the ill-fated 2010 World Cup campaign and appreciates the improved atmosphere. "The important thing is that we're all here together. It feels good."
The unity under Laurent Blanc has been clear in some of les Bleus’ recent performances and the preparatory matches against Iceland, Serbia and Estonia have produced some fantastic attacking play, superb goals and Ribéry in particular has played a key role. However, the former Marseille man is keeping his feet on the ground.
"We played well in the three friendly matches. We played some good football but there is still work to be done. We'll work hard in training to be ready for England but we're not putting pressure on ourselves ahead of the game. We'll prepare calmly and try to enjoy our football. "
Ribéry has not let the pressure get to him and realises the role he now plays in the team. When explaining how he is preparing to take on England
"I have a big responsibility here," he admits. "I'm one of the players who has been in the side for a while. But it's going well, and it's great to see France put this unbeaten run together. We're full of confidence and we’re looking to turn in a great performance in this tournament.”
"We'll do everything we can to win the Euro. Our last two big competitions haven't gone too well and we're aiming to make it through our group and into the quarter-finals. After that, anything is possible."
If Ribéry can recreate his form from last season with Champions League finalists Bayern Munich then every defence in the competition will have cause for concern. However, the native of Boulogne-sur-Mer credits current coach Blanc with his turnaround at international level.
"He has always shown his belief in me, and so has his assistant, Jean-Louis Gasset" declared Ribéry. "We've spoken a lot and they even came to Munich to talk with me. That's huge. Things were tough for a while and people were talking about me for all the wrong reasons, which was pretty annoying. But Laurent gave me the breathing space to build my confidence back up, especially in relation to the France fans, which is what happened in our recent friendly matches. I'm very happy to have the confidence of the man in charge."
With Ribéry full of confidence and in-form this European Championships could be the making of him. Highly-rated despite never really having delivered in the blue of his country, the wide man is now the key figure in the current les Bleus makeup and will be aiming to make up for lost time. Don’t bet against him and France finally delivering on their vast potential.