Football

France poised to banish 2010 demons

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Benzema will lead the line for France (©GettyImages)
Benzema will lead the line for France (©GettyImages).

Since Zinedine Zidane headbutted France out of the World Cup final in 2006, major tournaments have not held much joy for Les Blues.

This year, under the leadership of World Cup winner Laurent Blanc, France go to Ukraine and Poland more in hope than expectation, but after the shambles of their South African sojourn, they are just happy to be there.

Following their 2006 World Cup final defeat to Italy, France limped out of Euro 2008 in the group stages, scoring just one goal. They went one better in South Africa, exiting at the group stages amid accusations of deceit, deception and outright revolt.

Raymond Domenech's squad led their very own French revolution against their embattled boss, and the French looked as much a farce off the pitch as they did on it.

But this year offers the chance of redemption, especially for Patrice Evra, who returns to international competition having completed his five game ban and helped his side to qualification. In Ukraine and Poland, the French will face their old foe England, co-hosts Ukraine and Sweden.

Both France and England experienced player revolts in South Africa, but both have recovered to qualify for Euro 2012. Granted, their respective coaches have departed, but Patrice Evra and John Terry, the two captains at the centre of the storms, will line up once again for their countries this summer.

The bitter experience of South Africa led to much soul-searching on both sides of the Channel, and both nations have overhauled their squad to varying degrees. France were quicker out of the blocks, installing Blanc, banning the perpetrators and bringing in a fresh crop of players, but their revolution was more violent, and more public.

England took a little longer, and even with a new coach in place, the faces remain largely familiar. Both sides travel to Ukraine and Poland with much lower expectations than previously, which could play to their advantage.

But even though France completed the more thorough reform, the old uncertainties remain. Crisis is only ever one result away, and France were 2-0 down to Iceland last weekend, threatening to pitch their pre-tournament preparations into chaos. A stirring second-half comeback resulted in a 3-2 victory but Blanc will be concerned at the fragility of their defence.

Up front there is less to worry about, as Benzema is king, and has earned the right to lead the line. The former-Lyon ace has been excellent for Real Madrid, and will provide a focal point for Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Yohan Cabaye.

But it's the decision to include those players unaffected by the debacle in South Africa which could benefit France the most.

Nine players remain from that ill-fated campaign, and the majority of those stalwarts are established campaigners based outside France. But it's the French-based contingent which offer something different this time around, bringing renewed freshness to the squad. Ligue 1 has enjoyed something of a renaissance this season, aided by a thrilling title race, an unfancied champion and revived PSG.

Previously a one-horse race run only by Lyon, Ligue 1 this year has see unlikely victories, outstanding individual performances and some of the best young talent in Europe.

Blanc has sensibily rewarded the best with call-ups, and Olivier Giroud, Jeremy Menez, Blaise Matuidi, Yann M'Vila, Marvin Martin, Mathieu Debuchy and all three of the squad's goalkeepers all based in France.

The relative lack of tournament experience would be considered a problem for most coaches, but given the nature of France's recent appearances, the less hangover the better.

The team is packed with relatively young, creative midfield players, chief among them Manchester City star Nasri. But Mathieu Valbuena, Hatem Ben Afra and Jeremy Menez are all capable of changing a game with a flash of individual brilliance.

Crucial to their success, however, is the corresponding balance offered by the holding midfielders. Here, France can call on Alou Darria, M'Vila and Matuidi, while width is offered by their overlapping full-backs, Mathieu Debuchy and Patrice Evra.

Blanc's side begin their tournament with their match against England, a replay of the Euro 2004 encounter in Portugal. That year England called on Wayne Rooney, Steven Gerrard, Ashley Cole and Frank Lampard and will likely do so again eight years on.

In contrast, in 2004 Samir Nasri, Karim Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa and Jeremy Menez were busy winning the under-17 European Championship. This new generation of players brings a new enthusiasm to a team that had become stale in the past two tournaments.

As a result, France go into this summer free from expectation, and free from the demons of two years ago. Alongside England, Sweden and Ukraine they will be favourites to escape the group stages for the first time since 2006.

That year they ended in with an appearance in the final. This year might be too soon for some of the side, but for once the drama and excitement is set to take place on the pitch rather than off it.

Topics:
Internationals
Football
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