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side utilising their pace to outflank opponents and benefitting from Benzema’s natural tendency to take up a more withdrawn position that better suits him laying goals on rather than scoring them.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 Either he accepts Bezema’s preference to play the withdrawn role or he risks benching him and disturbing the team chemistry.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.
Laurent Blanc has already started the French mind games ahead of les Bleus’ showdown with defending champions Spain on Saturday night by attempting to shift the focus on his team away from the recent and well-publicised dressing room bust-up following their last Group D match with Sweden.
Montpellier striker Olivier Giroud claims that a shouting match ensued between certain members of the team and Blanc did little to dismiss those claims. The French coach is now revelling in his sides’ role as underdogs and has made no secret of his disappointment that finishing in second place has drawn them against the current World champions.
"You know, when you're used to getting good results and then you get a bad result, it's understandable that there's a bit of frustration, a bit of tension. On Tuesday we were all disappointed, the players and the coaching staff.
"We were expecting a tough game, but that tough? No. Sweden played with heart. Physically, they were very well prepared and they had a player up front capable of making the difference.
“It was very frustrating. Take the Mexes yellow card for example, it shows that we weren't cam and in control out there. It's a reflection of the whole team and the whole game where we just never found the right rhythm.
“I will admit that it's hard to imagine us upsetting Spain after a performance like that.”
Although skirting the issue of the rumoured squad disharmony to an extent, Blanc has acknowledged that the side have again come close to self-destruction. He insists however that there will be no repeat of the 2010 World Cup fiasco.
"We took a bit of time to calm everyone down and coming back to Donetsk from Kiev to our base camp allowed us to do that and be a bit more at peace.
"It did delay us in terms of when we could start preparing for the game with Spain but you have priorities that have to be dealt with.
"But, since Wednesday, everything has been about working towards the game with Spain.
Assistant manager Alain Boghossian has also denied rumours of a rift and insists that a late night meeting in the wake of the Sweden defeat, orchestrated by Blanc, has saved the squad and maintained some harmony in the camp.
"After everyone had a cold shower and time to cool off, we sat down together at the hotel and talked things through face to face” he said.
"Everybody said what he needed to say. That was important because it's like being in a couple in that if you don't talk to each other, things can build up.
"I'd have been much more worried if there had been no reaction at all and what happened after the game in the dressing room was normal.”
The stories of dressing room tension are threatening to de-rail France’s Euro campaign and it was Giroud’s quotes after the game against Sweden on Tuesday that has drawn attention to the matter. The striker however has justified his words and feels that the squad are stronger for the experience.
"It's bizarre to qualify with a loss. Yes there was a bit of anger. I hope this helps us ask the right questions of ourselves. We analysed things when we had cooled down a little and feel happier about it. When you talk too soon after a match, sometimes you say stupid things."
Karim Benzema will be facing a number of Real Madrid teammates when the two sides meet on Saturday, the former Lyon striker though pulled no punches admitting that if les Bleus are as lacklustre against Spain as they were against Sweden then they will be on the next plane home.
"We just didn't show up and playing Spain is our consolation prize. If we want to achieve something during these European championships, we can't reproduce this type of performance."
Saturday’s meeting with Spain will bring France back to the Donbass Arena in Donetsk where France have played the majority of their games so far. Hoping for a performance that will be more electric in style than the weather they play in, the odds are stacked against France. They do have one thing going for them though; the last team to beat Spain in an international quarter final was themselves en route to the World Cup Final in 2006. Will lightning strike a second time?
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.