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.
France enjoyed a 2-0 win over Serbia in Reims on Saturday night to add to their less convincing 3-2 victory over Iceland last week. Although the performance was a big improvement on the one seen in Valenciennes, France manager Laurent Blanc is still faced with more questions than answers.
Despite not being faced with the same injury issues as England boss Roy Hodgson, the former Bordeaux manager has a few headaches of his own to contend with ahead of next Tuesday’s final Euro 2012 warm-up match with Estonia. Having experimented with a number of different players so far during the training camp, Blanc’s selection for next week’s game should be fairly close to the side he expects to name in opening Group D clash against England.
The first conundrum facing the former French international is deciding on the formation he wants to lead with as les Bleus enter the tournament. He was criticised by some because of his decision to start with two defensive midfielders against Iceland but quickly changed that approach when it became obvious it was not working.
"It all depends on whether the point of the midfield triangle is in front of the defence (4-3-3) or behind the attackers (4-2-3-1), but you still have three midfielders and three attackers" Blanc explained. "For me, it's six of one, half a dozen of the other."
Against Serbia though the side went for a more attacking 4-3-3 formation that allowed the side to shift the emphasis from defence to attack. Blanc used his substitutions to try a variety of different combinations but was also forced to make a change that he perhaps did not want to make as Yann M’Vila had to leave the pitch after five minutes of play. Thankfully the injury is not as bad as first feared.
The difference in performance between the two games was big and given the success of the formation, it would appear that the biggest problem for Blanc now is deciding which team to select.
In my opinion the biggest problem lies in defence. Philippe Mexès despite playing for AC Milan still looks unsure of himself in the centre of defence and on the evidence of the first two games still lacks discipline as he has picked up two bookings in two games. Would Blanc be better served by pairing the solid if unspectacular Laurent Koscielny with Adil Rami to give the back four some much needed balance? Perhaps.
Also, a lot has been made of Gaël Clichy’s inclusion in the squad and the question marks it has raised over the confidence in Manchester United’s Patrice Evra at international level. The City full-back was in good form against Serbia and Blanc has spoken of his delight at the former Arsenal man’s form perhaps hinting that he could play a leading role for les Bleus in the tournament.
Giroud, Benzema or both?
The final teaser then is how to incorporate Ligue 1 top scorer Olivier Giroud into the side. The Montpellier predator came off the bench and provided two assists in the final five minutes to down Iceland and despite calls to try to play him alongside Real Madrid star Karim Benzema, Blanc has yet to start the pair together.
"We are preparing for the match on 11 June against England, not the matches against Iceland, Serbia or Estonia" he explained prior to the Serbia match. "To play Benzema and Giroud together from the start would mean reorganising the entire midfield."
Giroud came off the bench against the Serbs enjoying the final 30 minutes despite not having as big an impact as he did in Valenciennes. The win though stretches France’s impressive unbeaten run to 20 games and given Giroud’s goal against Germany en route to that record, Blanc may already have plans for the big striker.
With the final warm-up game against Estonia on Tuesday remaining, France appear well on course to be ready for the Group D curtain raiser with England on June 11.