After France’s first competitive win in Sarajevo in September 2010, Didier Roustan – a sports journalist among others – said that we will only know this side’s true value in Poland and Ukraine (provided we get there which wasn’t assured at the time).
What may be an obvious statement became quite accurate as time went by. Opponents in the qualifying group weren’t ones to test the international force that is France. Indeed, the qualifiers have become a period where your average football fan hopes the weekend goes fast enough in order to promptly get back to club football the following weekend. None of the groups provided a surprise (except maybe Estonia finishing in front of Serbia and Slovenia) and things should get more tedious with UEFA oddly welcoming the prospect of increasing the amount of sides at the next European Championships from 16 to 24… but this debate is for another entry.
The Bosnian win came after two very traumatic incidents for French football: the strike in South Africa and losing at home to Belarus at the Stade de France. In hindsight, the game in Sarajevo was on paper the toughest of the whole Group D calendar and two players came out of that game with flying colours: Vassiriki Diaby and Karim Benzema.
In a period where France is looking for a leader these two could fit the bill. Diaby is sidelined and may be unavailable for the trip to Eastern Europe but Benzema is one of the players that emerged and made his spot an undisputable one.
It is a known fact that Blanc is using this tournament to prepare for Brazil 2014. What to expect then? Barring unforeseen events (Turkey winning in Zagreb by 4 clear goals or Bosnia winning in Portugal), France will be in pot 4 which will make a qualification to the KO stages a success (an “exploit” according to Blanc) but let’s assess how this French side could line-up in June.
We will use Blanc’s preferred formation since he took over: 4-2-3-1.
In goal, Hugo Lloris is certain to start. Mandanda and Carrasso are both quality goalkeepers (the former is quite error-prone though) but lack the instinct and, frankly, the talent of the lad from Nice.
For the full-backs, the choices are almost made. On the right, Bacary Sagna should start but he finds himself in a situation of complacency such is the lack of competition for this spot. The only viable understudy would be Lyon’s Anthony Réveillère who is a solid if not spectacular defender while Lille’s Mathieu Debuchy could be a surprise inclusion. The paradox is total on the other flank: Evra, Abidal, Cissokho and lately Jeremy Mathieu are all quality full-backs both defending and going forward. The man plying his trade at Manchester United should get the nod despite the dreadful showing of Kysna.
Blanc seems to have chosen his central defensive pairing. It’ll be Philippe Mexès – who had a lengthy lay-out this summer and has more or less half a season with Milan to get his sharpness back (will he start ahead of Tiago Silva and Alessandro Nesta?) – and Adil Rami who left Ligue 1 to play in the Spanish League with Valencia. The pairing seems to be solid and both players look to have developed a satisfactory alchemy. Mexès was never a favourite under Domenech (one dreadful performance in Vienna didn’t help) but certainly has been under Blanc while Rami is probably France’s best choice when it comes to aerial ability. The understudies could be Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny and PSG’s very promising youth product Mamadou Sakho (and club captain).
The holding two are destined to be Alou Diarra and Yann M’Vila. Diarra is under a lot of pressure at Marseille and currently hasn’t performed to the level of the beast he was back when Bordeaux won the title in 2009 but he is viable to start as he was made captain of the side after the World Cup in South Africa and still is. The holding midfielder spot next to him is up for competition. Right now, M’Vila has it but a few players like Paris’s Blaise Matuidi, Lyon’s Maxime Gonalons or Newcastle’s Yohan Cabaye could get the nod in time for the competition’s opener.
The front 3 is where France’s options are very varied which can only be a good option for Blanc.
The right is not settled as Jérémy Ménez, Mathieu Valbuena or Loïc Rémy (when he is not displayed in a striking role) have all played there in the past and it is the former that has impressed the most. Ménez is the kind of player that frustrates you by his brilliance. His dribbling skills and his work rate tracking back are second to none but he very often goes into one to many dribbling mazes and ends up losing the ball instead of squaring it to a teammate. Ménez is very versatile and has been seen playing for Roma at all positions of the front 4 in a 4-2-3-1 including centre-forward. Valbuena has the same characteristics but his height may come as a drawback when Blanc will be making his team selection.
The no.10 role is theoretically destined to Samir Nasri. He’s played there before and we all know he can do the business. It is important to note that Nasri had a row with press two months ago and decided to boycott press conferences. Young Samir then apologized and quietened the critics by qualifying his country for a major finals. This kind of episode usually strengthens a player mentally which Blanc will only appreciate. Nasri’s understudy seems to be Sochaux’s Marvin Martin who will make a big money move next summer (it should be to Lyon). Whatever happened to Yoann Gourcuff? He is back on the football pitch at last but his inclusion will be one of the major decisions Blanc will have to make in May.
The left looks destined to Franck Ribéry who looks to get back to his very best. His outbursts seem to be behind him and he seems to be focused on doing the business on the pitch. The obvious understudy would be Chelsea’s Florent Malouda.
Onto upfront: as previously stated, Karim Benzema is the first-choice centre-forward. Now is his chance to take the bull by the horns and show that he is the clinical finisher that we all know he can be. Jose Mourinho seems to give him his chance more often at Real Madrid (Benzema is currently La Liga’s 6th top scorer) and competition for the goal-poacher role seems to be fair between him and Gonzalo Higuain. As back-up, Blanc often called PSG’s Guillaume Hoarau last year but he may need to rethink that choice. Hoarau is out for another fortnight at least and competitors such as Montpellier’s Olivier Giroud, Lazio’s Djibril Cissé or Hoarau’s teammate at PSG Kévin Gameiro have come to light.
We have thus seen that Blanc has for definite starters (barring injuries of course): Lloris, Sagna, Mexès, Rami, Evra, Diarra, Ribéry and Benzema. The partner of Diarra is yet to be confirmed while the right winger and second striker will have to be assessed too. Nonetheless, we can say that this group of players has quality (albeit lacks a leader à la Platini or Zidane) and that getting out of the group stages in Poland & Ukraine doesn’t seem so out of reach as Blanc would have us believe.