Euro 2012 preview: France

Rejuvenated since the shame of South Africa, Laurent Blanc's side have momentum and a wealth of attacking riches, says Ben Lyttleton

When Laurent Blanc marked his first game in charge by dropping all 23 players who were part of France’s embarrassing 2010 World Cup campaign, it was no gimmick. Though France lost 2-1 to Norway, he handed international debuts to several players who will be part of his plans this summer, including Adil Rami, Yann M’Vila, Yohan Cabaye and Jeremy Menez.

Since losing their first qualifier at home to Belarus, Blanc’s France have gone on an 18-game unbeaten run that includes wins over England, Brazil and Germany. It’s one thing playing down expectations when the team has just gone on strike and failed at a World Cup; quite another when it beats one of the Euro favourites, Germany, 2-1 on their own patch.

But it has not been an easy process for Blanc. His first win came in the excellent 2-0 qualifying success over Bosnia & Herzegovina, when his midfield of M’Vila, Abou Diaby and Alou Diarra combined physique and technique to put down their markers for the future.

Then the wheels came off: Diarra, initially pencilled in to be Blanc’s captain, had a dramatic loss of form after moving to Marseille last summer, while Diaby has been injured for most of the season. That gave Cabaye a chance and he took it, as did Samir Nasri – a player, like fellow Clairefontaine graduate Karim Benzema, overlooked by Raymond Domenech after a row at Euro 2008.

Under Blanc, Benzema has looked the world-beater he can be for Real Madrid, and his best performances have come against the better teams: he scored in the Wembley win over England, and got the winner against Brazil.

Blanc’s long search for a captain was another concern for les Bleus: he trialled Florent Malouda, Philippe Mexes, Hugo Lloris and Eric Abidal as well as Diarra, before settling on Lloris, the quiet goalkeeper who insists he has charisma but prefers to keep it behind closed doors. It’s a strange selection: Blanc might have preferred Mexes, but the AC Milan centre-back has a habit of losing his temper on the pitch.

The tensions in the squad under Domenech have now gone: if anything, the tensest relationship now involves Blanc and his French federation bosses. Blanc was upset at his perceived lack of support last summer after he was implicated in a storm over racial quotas in French youth teams (see this month’s FourFourTwo for the full story).

Since qualification was sealed with a final qualifying draw against Bosnia & Herzegovina, has been keen to extend his contract – but new French FA head Noel Le Graet, mindful of the problems his predecessor had in locking Domenech into a two-year extension pre-Euro 2008, wants to wait until after the tournament to decide. By then it may be too late, as Blanc is on the wanted list at several top club sides. The temptations of a World Cup in Brazil could be resistible after all.

Lesson from qualifying
Don’t make any long-term plans. Blanc was extremely unlucky with injuries, not least to Diaby, a player the manager rates hugely. But while his unpopular predecessor always played two holding midfielders in his preferred 4-2-3-1 system, Blanc prefers to partner M’Vila with a passer like Cabaye in the middle of the park.

The spine of the team is talented, solid and young, with Lloris, Rami, M’Vila and Benzema representing the future – and Benzema comes off the back of a superb season at Real Madrid. Blanc also has some decent impact subs to call on: Menez can run at players with pace while Mathieu Valbuena has a big-game mentality. Both could be useful squad additions.

A lack of leaders has been a problem since before the World Cup, and Blanc’s 18-month search for a suitable captain only highlighted that. When the team was wobbling at 1-0 down in their final qualifier – and looking set for another play-off lottery – it was hard to find the individual pushing the team on.

As it was, Nasri scored the decisive penalty against Bosnia & Herzegovina and announced afterwards that he was ready to be the leader that France needed. Meanwhile, the eternal debate over Franck Ribery could emerge again: brilliant for Bayern, average for France. He has the ability, but needs to start showing it for les Bleus.

Did you know...?
One of the bones of contention between Blanc and his bosses is the backroom staff. A source close to FA boss Le Graet was quoted as saying, “we could do with one or two fewer” than the 21 members. But former coach Domenech took 25 to South Africa, including two press officers and two goalkeeping coaches. Blanc’s biggest expenditure may be the ‘consultancy contract’ handed to Fabien Barthez: the former keeper and kiss recipient gets €90K per year for his informal role.

Expert’s view
Darren Tulett, host, Al-Jazeera Sport France
“French football was in the doldrums after the World Cup, but this team could be redeemed if they get out of their group and put up a valiant fight in the knockouts. The public haven’t been seduced by the style of football, but France have come a long way in two years, and that is down to Blanc and the new faces he’s brought in who don’t carry the stain of South Africa.”

United, talented squad. Outsiders for final?

Key player
Karim Benzema
After a poor debut season at Real Madrid, Benzema was left out of the 23-man France party who finished bottom of their group at the 2010 World Cup. But under Blanc he’s been a regular starter and the 24-year-old has repaid his manager by scoring three goals in qualifying, as well as the opener in the friendly against England. The focal point of the French attack.

The Manager
Laurent Blanc
The World Cup winner took over a team in disarray after poor showings at Euro 2008 and World Cup 2010. He lost his first two games in charge, including a home qualifier to Belarus, but has since steadied the ship, les Bleus going 18 games unbeaten. Won this trophy as a player in 2000 but faces a bigger challenge to do it again as manager.

How they play
The three players behind the lone striker provide width and pace in attack. Protected by two deeper midfielders, 
the fluid attacking quartet are given free roam to cause problems for opponents. Blanc faces something of a selection dilemma, though, with Nasri, Malouda, Ribery, Menez, Valbuena and Loic Remy all vying for those three attacking midfield spots.

Euro record
1960 Semi-finals
1964 DNQ
1968 DNQ
1972 DNQ
1976 DNQ
1980 DNQ
1984 Winners
1988 DNQ
1992 First round
1996 Semi-finals
2000 Winners
2004 Quarter-finals
2008 First round

June 11 England (Donetsk, 5pm)
June 15 Ukraine (Donetsk, 5pm)
June 19 Sweden (Kiev, 7.45pm)

France are 11/1 to win the Euros – or 5/1 to finish bottom of the group.
Exclusive Coral/FourFourTwo free bet offer: Bet £30, get £60.
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Grp A:
Poland • Russia • Greece • Czech Republic
Grp B:
Netherlands • Germany • Portugal • Denmark
Grp C:
Spain • Italy • Croatia • Republic of Ireland
Grp D:
Ukraine • England • France • Sweden

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