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side utilising their pace to outflank opponents and benefitting from Benzema’s natural tendency to take up a more withdrawn position that better suits him laying goals on rather than scoring them.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 Either he accepts Bezema’s preference to play the withdrawn role or he risks benching him and disturbing the team chemistry.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.
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.
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.