Just under two years ago, French football was staring into the abyss. “They don’t want to train. It’s unacceptable. As for me, it’s over. I’m leaving the federation. I’m sickened and disgusted” were the words of Louis Valentin, then managing director of the French Football Federation. Les Bleus left South Africa with a dark cloud hanging over their future, and they return to international finals with an element of mystery, something of an unknown quantity. That is not to say that these players are novices on the international stage, with Frank Ribery playing in the 2006 World Cup final, and Karim Benzema playing for arguably the biggest club in the world, however it feels as if the natural talent, such as the famed ‘1987 generation’, that France has been moulding over the past decade, is now ready to be exposed to the international stage. No one quite knows how the likes of Benzema, Nasri, Ribery, Valbuena and Ben Arfa will cope with playing together under the pressure of a European Championships. There is the further paradox, that despite going 19 games unbeaten, and housing one of the best holding midfielders in the world, the team feels very fragile. There is a sense coming out of France, that this side will either go all the way, or implode in the group stages.
The team will line up in a 4-2-3-1 formation, which Laurent Blanc has used throughout the qualifying rounds. Despite only conceding 4 goals over the course of the qualifying campaign, the defense appeared to be providing the biggest headache for Blanc during the friendly against Iceland, in Valenciennes. Adil Rami, of Valencia, and Phillipe Mexes, of AC Milan, have been Blanc’s regular partnership at centre back, however on the back of a pair of poor, injury interrupted seasons in Spain and Italy, as well as a sloppy game against Iceland, Laurent Koscielny could come in to replace Rami. The real problem is at left back, with Patrice Evra clearly deciding that he is now a flying winger. Evra stood still and admired as Iceland scored twice from positions he should have been covering, strengthening Gael Clichy’s case for a starting berth. Evra is widely despised in France for his role in the mutiny in the South Africa two years ago, with many people saying Evra should never wear the blue shirt again. The one consolation for Blanc is that in Bacary Sagna’s absence, Lille’s Matheiu Debucy has slotted in seamlessly, whilst also providing a threat going forward.
Whilst it may appear that Blanc is spoilt for riches in midfield, he has outlined two major problems going into the tournament, inexperience, and the lack of a natural number ten. Prior to deciding the 23 man squad Blanc said of the midfield, “there are players who have the potential to be in the France team – but players who have proven they can really be a part of it, there are very few.” Blanc may well be referring to Yann M’Vila and Yohan Cabaye, who are traveling to their first tournament and look set to start anchoring the midfield. M’Vila widely touted as one of the most promising, young, midfielders in Europe, who will act as the ‘destroyer’, turned his ankle in the recent friendly against Serbia and may not make the first game. Alou Diarra, who does have experience of major tournaments, will replace M’Vila if he cannot play, is slightly aging and does not offer the same dynamism. Whilst there is a concern over Cabaye’s experience, he has had an excellent season at Newcastle and is very important in moving the ball quickly from midfield to attack, being very adept at incisive first time passes. Blanc originally looked at Nasri to play the trequartista role, however he has looked poor and slightly ponderous on the ball, especially compared to the one touch football Benzema and Ribery are able to concoct. Marvin Martin, who would be in line to play the number ten role, has had a poor season with Sochaux, and Jeremy Menez frequently takes too many touches.
Regardless of the problem of the number ten, Blanc really does have a boatload of talent in the attacking third. Benzema and Ribery have had outstanding seasons, Nasri still is a world-class player, and with players such as Hatem Ben Arfa and Mathieu Valbuena able to come off the bench, Glen Johnson and Gary Cahill must be quaking in their boots. Ben Arfa and Valbuena have the capability of playing even better in this championships than with their clubs, given the higher standard of player. Ben Arfa and Benzema’s link up play against Iceland was sublime, despite their apparent personal issues. Olivier Giroud, who has just come off a championship winning season with Montpellier, looks perfectly suited to international football, scoring against Germany, and setting up two goals against Iceland. He will push Benzema for his place, and it has even be suggested that the pair could start together with Benzema playing just behind Giroud. Blanc seems likely to field Ribery, Nasri and PSG’s Jeremy Menez behind Karim Benzema for the first game against England. Blanc does however have the luxury of having excellent replacements for all of the front four, so if Nasri is off his game, Martin or Ben Arfa can come off the bench to make an impact.
It will be very important for France to get off to a good start. They haven’t won the opening game at a major finals since 2000, when they won the whole competition, and if they beat their most feared group stage opponents, England, they should be able to win the group easily. With some momentum, providing they don’t come across Spain in the quarter finals, France’s attacking players could start to click and they could expose any of a host of weak defenses across the tournament. It is crucial that they start well and build some early momentum, as it may be hard for Blanc to keep some volcanic egos in check.