France’s strikers run dry ahead of World Cup

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RESULTS Sat Apr 10 Le Mans 2-2 Montpellier, Lorient 1-1 Rennes, Monaco 2-1 Valenciennes, Toulouse 4-0 Grenoble, Sochaux 0-2 Saint-Étienne, Lens 3-0 Boulogne, PSG 3-1 Bordeaux Sun Apr 11 Lyon 1-1 Lille, Nancy 0-1 Auxerre, Marseille 4-1 Nice

With just under two months to go before France’s opening World Cup match against Uruguay in Cape Town, Raymond Domenech is no doubt sat in a rickety old caravan on the French seafront. He has his headscarf on, incense burning, and the lights down low.

He is poring over his horoscopes, humming to himself, while looking up inquisitively at the glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the caravan’s ceiling for a cosmic indication as to who should make his 23-man squad for the finals in South Africa.

After his revelations in the build-up to Euro 2008, The French Connection knows Domenech doesn’t like having a Leo in defence.

So why, we ask, did Ray get all in a tizzy when French football’s most famous Leo, Arsenal defender William Gallas, suffered a relapse of a calf injury after being rushed back to play against Barcelona last month?

Surely, the stars were aligning in Ray’s favour. But no, The French Connection was wrong. “I’m livid and p*ssed off,” he raged. “It’s outrageous and irresponsible to have played him so early after the injury. It’s scandalous. He’d better be fit for the World Cup.”

"There there, William, I won't let that nasty Mr Wenger hurt you again"

Could the pressure, or God forbid the sheer scale of his unpopularity, finally be getting to the unflappable Ray? Surely not!

But last month’s 2-0 defeat at home to Spain has yet to be swept under the carpet, partly because his players had their confidence shot to pieces and are using interviews with the press like a shrink’s patients use his couch.

A hack from the newspaper Le Progrès practically found Lyon midfielder Jérémy Toulalan hunched up in the foetal position, saying: “Are they gone yet?”

OK that’s not quite true, but Toulalan was certainly emotionally scarred by the experience. “The federation is doing nothing to help us. There was no worse choice than Spain for our confidence. I have never felt so humiliated and helpless than against Spain and Barcelona last season.”

It wasn’t long before Nicolas Anelka, the striker formerly known as Le Sulk, reprised his old moniker and had a truly epic moan even by his own high standards.

Speaking to Orange Sport last week, Anelka said: “We can’t continue to take lessons in football like we suffered against Spain for example. We have to work to find an answer, if not it’s just not possible, we’ll be coming home after the three (first round) matches.”

Having only just got started, Anelka grabbed the microphone and spat a few more barbed lines perhaps inspired from former France international Youri Djorkaeff’s recent foray into rap, although even the hip-hop loving French Connection concedes that such an eventuality is distinctly unlikely – I mean just listen to Vivre dans ta lumière...

“You can’t go and lose 2-0 like that – it was truly ridiculous,” Anelka grimaced. “We were ‘killed’ on the pitch. It was a case of Division One against Division Four. That’s the truth – it was like professionals taking on amateurs.”

And while it’s easy though not unjustifiable to hold Domenech completely responsible for France’s uninspiring performances, such a viewpoint would also be akin to blaming a pilot for a plane crash in which the engines failed, as the country’s strikers have also been misfiring this season. 

A recent article in France Football asked: “Where have all the French goalscorers gone?”

A year ago, three Frenchman, André-Pierre Gignac, Guillaume Hoarau and Karim Benzema, all finished in the top four of Le Championnat’s scoring charts. They were hailed as a new generation of French strikers, capable of replacing Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka.

Now there are only three in the top 10, and Gignac and Hoarau aren’t among them, essentially because they have both had an injury-ravaged season in Ligue 1.

This in itself wouldn’t have caused Domenech too many sleepless nights had France’s first choice strikers been scoring freely in Spain and England. However, Henry (3), Benzema (7) and Anelka (8) have scored just 18 League goals between them this season; the former two aren’t even regulars at Barcelona and Real Madrid.

A growing reliance on foreign centre-forwards is partly to blame, according to the recently retired Steve Savidan, France’s favourite former dustman turned cult striker.

"Let's just start punching them in"

“The big clubs have turned towards foreign players to reinforce their attacks,” he said.

“This doesn’t mean to say that they are not focusing a lot on French strikers. It means that there are also very interesting merchandising prospects behind foreign players. And that these players generally possess more experience of big competitions like the Champions League.”

A cursory glance at Ligue 1 reveals Savidan to be right. Of the 20 teams in Le Championnat, 13 have a foreigner as a top scorer. Lyon are a case in point, favouring Lisandro López to Bafétimbi Gomis for reasons pertaining to experience, how they fit in the team’s system with the Argentine almost always favoured in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and perhaps, as Savidan points out, their marketability.

All of which gives Domenech a bit of a headache ahead of this summer’s World Cup.

And while it’s romantic to think that Ray might take Kevin Gameiro, Lorient’s instinctive 22-year-old striker who is the best placed Frenchman in Ligue 1’s scoring charts or even Nice’s Loïc Rémy, the bottom line is France have uncertainty up front ahead of the finals.  

Of course, a prolific striker isn’t a pre-requisite for World Cup glory as Aimé Jacquet showed in 1998, relying on the much-derided Stéphane Guivarc’h who didn’t score a single goal.

He nevertheless played a crucial and undervalued role in the French side, holding the ball up to play in the likes of Zinedine Zidane while also acting as the team’s first defender.

However, depending on goals from positions other than those up front is a risk and one Domenech will be looking to somehow avoid in South Africa.

"Maybe things will go better for me at Newcastle..."

The French Connection’s Amuse-Bouche...

1) When you’re fighting a relegation battle, everyone needs to be on the same page, especially if there is ever to be a famous Great Escape.

The players need faith, a glimmer of hope. It can come from anywhere, only in Grenoble it’s unlikely to come from the president. Asked to sum up their situation last week, Pierre Wantiez said: “Depressing. Our fate is already sealed. I’m not really a believer and I don’t know if anyone believes we will stay in Ligue 1 but I don’t.”

Wantiez was put out of his misery on Saturday, as Toulouse inflicted a 4-0 defeat on his side, making their relegation a certainty.

2) While Lyon and Bordeaux contested the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday, Marseille hosted Sochaux for what Didier Deschamps termed their own Champions League match.

His side won 3-0 and went top again on Sunday night with a convincing 4-1 victory over Nice. Five consecutive victories make Marseille the favourites to win their first League title since 1992, and an impressive double.

3) PSG did Marseille a favour by recording their first win over Bordeaux for nearly two years. Michaël Ciani, the Bordeaux centre-back, was once again in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Ciani tried to be clever on a routine clearance and ended up putting his goalkeeper Ulrich Ramé under such pressure that the veteran made a last ditch challenge and got sent off. Bordeaux lost 3-1, suffering their fourth defeat in five matches.

Laurent Blanc’s side now lie fifth and have the third worst defence in Ligue 1 in 2010. Unfortunately they look likely to be dismantled in the summer.

4) Lyon booked their first ever place in the Champions League semi-finals where they will play Bayern Munich. Les Gones have a good record against the German giants, having lost just two of their six encounters since the 2000-01 season.

They also tend to do well in Germany, winning at Werder Bremen, Stuttgart, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern all in the last nine years.

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