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 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 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.
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.