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?
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.
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.