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 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.