Thursday, June 17, 2010
French heads stuck in a bucket
The Mexican press had been demanding their team hand the French their Waterloo prior to the two nations' Group A meeting on Thursday. If Napoleon had seen the abject 2-0 surrender of his compatriots in Polokwane, he would have left red-faced.
• Domenech downbeat
Incredibly, France even managed to outdo their calamitous showing in their opening 0-0 draw with Uruguay as they eased themselves to the brink of an early flight home with a disconcerting lack of concern. Not that Raymond Domenech saw it that way.
"I'm speechless. It's a real disappointment for all the people who still believed," he said, wildly overestimating the level of optimism outside the confines of his own mind. "There were good intentions, but there was always something that didn't work." Most times, there was more than one thing.
The introduction of Florent Malouda in place of the out-of-form Yoann Gourcuff at kick-off had been a move mooted by many, but any positive impact the Chelsea man might have had was negated as he had his style cramped by Franck Ribery. The Bayern midfielder, who had been handed a central playmaking role, frequently drifted into Malouda's position on the left, leaving Malouda to try and squeeze into Ribery's shoes just as Cinderella's sisters vainly attempted to shoehorn their feet into Prince Charming's glass slipper.
Domenech, though, should have known better than try and play Ribery through the middle. The ex-Marseille man has stated quite clearly he feels his best position is on the left where he can cut inside onto his right foot, and he already tried - and failed - to play in a creative central role for his club last season. Zinedine Zidane had suggested Ribery, whom he admires greatly, could don the mantle he himself shed spectacularly at the last World Cup final, but Ribery is not made to be a classic 'No.10' and France's inability to play without one meant Domenech's tinkering was frankly pointless and predictably fruitless.
That, though, still fails to explain the abysmal lack of quality from dead balls. Ribery seemed to think it obligatory to strike free-kicks into - rather than around or over - the wall, and France's inability to create anything resembling a clear-cut scoring chance in the entire 90 minutes was unforgiveable.
Malouda's fiercely-struck effort shortly after half-time was by far the most ominous of France's pathetic four shots on goal, and resulted in nothing more than a routine save by Oscar Perez. "I hope it annoys them," Domenech had said of his strikers' scoring drought after seeing them find the net just three times in their last four matches prior to kick-off. "The fuel of forwards is to score," he added. If that is the case, they are running on empty.
Nicolas Anelka, who kept his place in the starting line-up despite growing calls for him to be dropped, once again looked disinterested. The bowels of a late-night reveller who has eaten a dodgy curry would have moved more than the Chelsea striker, who again looked far from the figure who has wreaked havoc in the English Premier League this season.
"What struck me was Nicolas Anelka's first half," said Bixente Lizarazu on French TV. "I saw him walking...walking in the World Cup! He wasn't aggressive, and wasn't interested in the game. It's a symbolic image. Domenech took him off at half time, but should have done it much sooner."
Anelka's replacement, Andre-Pierre Gignac, tried to compensate for his lack of finesse with increased industry, but simply could not. Why Djibril Cisse and Thierry Henry were not brought on in an attempt to salvage something from the game only Monsieur Domenech can answer. They may not be the ideal solution, but at least it would have given France more of a presence in the final third. Not included in the final squad, Karim Benzema has seen his stock rise merely by being the man to have missed out on the debacle.
At the back, things were little better with Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna both subdued doppelgangers of their club selves, while the centre-back pairing that Domenech has never gotten right again looked all at sea.
While Javier Hernandez's opening goal appeared to have been offside - another piece of divine retribution for Henry's handball against Ireland? - the second again showed the folly of playing Eric Abidal at centre-back. Lacking the positional sense to be in the right place at the right time, the Barcelona defender lunged at Pablo Barrera with schoolboy rashness to concede the penalty that killed off the game. Barrera had almost scored with a header seconds after coming on following a mistimed sortie by Hugo Lloris, but the fact the Lyon keeper attempted to cut out the cross so far from his goal-line suggests a lack of confidence in his central defenders that has been created by Domenech's insistence on pairing Abidal with William Gallas.
Lizarazu added that "the French team was well off course with their heads in a bucket." Perhaps that is just as well, because if they tried to kick one they would probably miss. All of which makes the job of Lizarazu's 1998 World Cup-winning team-mate, Laurent Blanc, all the more taxing when he takes over following France's exit, which will surely come next week.
Wherever he is in the world, Blanc must be a worried man if he has seen his country's displays to date. In fact, the only person fretting more will be Estelle Denis, or Ms Raymond Domenech if you prefer.
Following Les Bleus' first-round exit at Euro 2008, Domenech proposed to his girlfriend in his post-match interview. Ms Denis must be somewhat disturbed at the thought of just what she might get asked come next Tuesday night.