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.
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.