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 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.