Watching France train in the alpine resort of Tignes over the last week was a little like discovering a sequel to `90s classic Cool Runnings. At times it was farcical, partly because seeing a group of footballers on ski lifts and then crashing buggies just weeks before the World Cup was refreshingly reckless.
Then there was Raymond Domenech who had been cast in place of the late John Candy, leaving no one under the impression that this French team, like a group of Jamaican bobsledders, would actually win anything this summer.
A survey conducted by French newspaper LÃ¢ÂÂÃÂquipe, which was spread over nine different countries, showed that only three per cent of respondents thought Les Bleus would win the World Cup. And if that wasnÃ¢ÂÂt bad enough, France finished second behind Diego MaradonaÃ¢ÂÂs Argentina in a poll of the least appreciated teams at this summerÃ¢ÂÂs finals in South Africa.
Yet itÃ¢ÂÂs clear that despite the acrimony and recrimination that surrounded their qualification for the World Cup and MarchÃ¢ÂÂs humiliating defeat to Spain, confidence is high in the French camp. Ã¢ÂÂWe practically have the best players in the world at every position,Ã¢ÂÂ Manchester UnitedÃ¢ÂÂs Patrice Evra explained. Ã¢ÂÂThat does not make us the best team in the world, not yet anyway, and we have to work to become that but weÃ¢ÂÂre going to the World Cup to win.Ã¢ÂÂ
"No, you can't be in my bobsleigh team - you're a chuffing Libra!"
Surprisingly, credit for the creation of that mentality should go to Domenech. When the players arrived in Tignes, he sat them down for dinner and apparently said: Ã¢ÂÂYou must like each other off the pitch, otherwise you wonÃ¢ÂÂt like each other on it and youÃ¢ÂÂll never succeed in matches. Learn to appreciate each other. Discover each other. Be united.Ã¢ÂÂ
After emerging from a group hug, Domenech could walk away - slipped disc permitting - with the confidence that he had learned from the Euro 2008 debacle when divisions within the squad flared up and contrived to wreck their campaign. Rebellious types like Samir Nasri, who got on William GallasÃ¢ÂÂs nerves when he Ã¢ÂÂdisrespectedÃ¢ÂÂ Thierry Henry by taking his place on the team bus in Switzerland two years ago, were left at home.
Bro-mance was the order of the day in Tignes. So much so that Henry, FranceÃ¢ÂÂs captain, even accepted a place on the bench for WednesdayÃ¢ÂÂs warm-up match against Costa Rica in Lens. Ã¢ÂÂNo matter who plays, this team has shown that it is working to have a soul,Ã¢ÂÂ Henry smiled, no doubt channeling Winston from Cool Runnings. There would be no need for Domenech to Ã¢ÂÂget his gunÃ¢ÂÂ as heÃ¢ÂÂd promised to do in April should the players not be clever enough to forget their egos.
Of course, FranceÃ¢ÂÂs team-building exercises - like cycling, shooting and tennis - all had a secondary purpose: they were there to take the playersÃ¢ÂÂ minds off the altitude, although Lyon goalkeeper Hugo Lloris did note that playing in such conditions made the new Jabulani ball move in a Ã¢ÂÂcatastrophicÃ¢ÂÂ fashion.
Training at 9,800 feet also triggered an illness in Lassana Diarra, which led doctors to diagnose him with Ã¢ÂÂasthenic syndrome secondary to a sickle-cell anemiaÃ¢ÂÂ, ruling him out of the World Cup, but posing no risk to his career.
Insert 'on yer bike' pun here...
Ironically though DiarraÃ¢ÂÂs misfortune may actually help France, as it forced Domenech into a tactical rethink, persuading him to shelve the rigid 4-2-3-1 that Les Bleus have used in each of the last six seasons in favour of a more fluid and attacking 4-3-3. Ã¢ÂÂItÃ¢ÂÂs an interesting option that gives us more guarantees offensively, but more fragility in defence.Ã¢ÂÂ
Instead of having two holding midfield players, Domenech retained JÃÂ©rÃÂ©my Toulalan just in front of the defence but had Yoann Gourcuff and Florent Malouda patrolling the flanks. His next move was to play RibÃÂ©ry in his preferred position on the left-hand side of the attack, placing Nicola Anelka in the centre and Sidney Govou on the right of a three-pronged attack.
Bixente Lizarazu, a member of FranceÃ¢ÂÂs World Cup and European Championship winning sides, had his reservations. Ã¢ÂÂThe 4-2-3-1 is an imperfect book that the players know well and can correct. The 4-3-3 is a new book whose first page is yet to be written.Ã¢ÂÂ And Bixente looked as if he would be proven right when Costa Rica took the lead through Carlos HernÃÂ¡ndezÃ¢ÂÂs long rang shot in the eleventh minute, which Steve Mandanda misjudged, perhaps because of the ballÃ¢ÂÂs changing trajectory. Sitting on the bench, Lloris probably thought: Ã¢ÂÂI told you so.Ã¢ÂÂ
But France, captained by Evra, were dominating, displaying an enthusiasm and attacking verve that their players so often show for their clubs, but rarely for their country under Domenech. The triangle of Evra, Malouda and RibÃÂ©ry on the left-hand side looked sharp and brimmed with intent, while Gourcuff, playing slightly deeper than at Bordeaux offered technical quality and a threat from distance.
France equalised after 22 minutes thanks to a shot from RibÃÂ©ry, which deflected in off Douglas Sequeira, restoring a smidgen of pride to a team that deserved a break. However, the night ultimately belonged to Mathieu Valbuena - DomenechÃ¢ÂÂs wildcard - who came on and became the fifth player to score on his debut for France under Ray, hitting a fine winner in the 83rd minute off a pass from Abou Diaby who also impressed when introduced in place of Malouda.
When the final whistle went, fans leaving the FÃÂ©lix-Bollaert were smiling for once. But then again France have never lost in Lens and with all due respect it was only Costa Rica. DomenechÃ¢ÂÂs dabbling with a 4-3-3 is a work in progress, but a success nonetheless.
Occasionally, the team looked split in two between five attackers and five defenders, but Raynald Denoueix, the man who brought through Didier Deschamps, Marcel Desailly and Claude MakÃÂ©lÃÂ©lÃÂ© at Nantes, still felt compelled to say: Ã¢ÂÂIt was delicious. I saw a super match of football.Ã¢ÂÂ
SundayÃ¢ÂÂs match against Tunisia will tell us more about whether France have struck upon the magic formula just in time for the World Cup.
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