Laurent Blanc is a man seemingly at ease with himself, these days. Having taken charge of a French national team riven with dissent in the aftermath of a humiliating World Cup experience, the Frenchman got to work getting rid of the deadwood and reshaping the jaded outfit into a leaner, meaner, younger fighting force. It wasn’t easy, and his initiation into the international arena was of Dalglish-like anti-climactic proportions. France crashed to a disappointing 2-1 loss to Norway, then and the future looked bleak.
Seven months on, and Blanc has thoroughly cashed in his chips and used his Get-Out-Of-Jail-Free card to great effect. The hitherto-hapless French went on to sneak solitary-goal margin victories over the likes of cross-channel rivals England and behemoths Brazil, under his tutelage. It was Karim Benzema who came to France’s and Blanc’s rescue in both games, scoring the opening goal in a 2-1 win over England and the only goal in the triumph over Brazil. Blanc didn’t need a degree in rocket science to tell him Karim Benzema would need to be the cornerstone, if France’s revival were to last until Euro 2012 – coincidentally, also the end of Blanc’s tenure.
Blanc’s prime concern remains what to do with the rest of the team since Benzema, despite all of Mourinho’s criticism of him, seems to have turned the sole striker position up front into his own. The team compositions have changed, over the past several months and Blanc has had the good fortune of running into lesser opposition in the qualifiers to Euro 2012. Some of the more shambolic formations have therefore not been punished as much as they ought to have been, merely on account of France having only faced the likes of Belarus, Albania, Bosnia and Herzegovina.
Blanc persisted with the changes, bringing in a formation against Luxembourg that Mancini would have been proud of. Playing a 4-2-3-1, with two defensive midfielders, Blanc had only himself to blame for a terribly leaden victory over lowly Luxembourg. France were often found wanting up front despite playing most of the game in Luxembourg’s half. For a coach brought in to shape a new era for the side, Blanc seems to draw comfort from playing the established names or even knowing that he can afford to call upon them.
That’s not necessarily a negative on its own, as it would take a brave manager to decide Franck Ribery and Patrice Evra were expendable, especially with Thierry Henry and Nicolas Anelka having made it to that Valhalla of retirees – the great hall of fame, or shame if you aren’t inclined to forgive them their World Cup shenanigans just yet. Henry, the bane of the Irish, has made his way to the United States where he continues to enjoy an extended retirement while the national team barely misses him. Anelka, who’s been turning in a series of blow-hot-blow-cold performances at Chelsea, might join his fellow countryman on the other side of the Atlantic pond.
The jury is still out on whether Evra and Ribery have what it takes to re-establish their position up the pecking order in the national team, and whether any attempt to retain them will alienate vast sections of the French faithful. The Dirty Duo were named co-conspirators in the shambolic attempt to depose Domenech mid-way through the World Cup, and the subsequent exit hasn’t earned them the tag of team players. Still, it is heartening they haven’t chosen Anelka’s path in pooh-poohing the French football association leaving Blanc the option of counting on them should the need arise.
The need apparently arose, in the clash with Luxembourg, and the two prodigal sons were disappointing for the most part. Franck Ribery was pathetic on the right, but gradually improved on finding his way back to the left. That constituted a selection headache for Blanc, who already had Malouda operating there. Malouda’s club form seems to have infected the national sphere as well, as he only showed flickers of his talented past.
Blanc would have been thrilled, however, with Mexes. The defender, who’s been around for ages, and yet seldom utilized proved he’s not only resolute at the back, but also good in the air. Mexes provided the opening goal for France. Instead of being the first of many, the Mexes goal only saved France the embarrassment of heading into half-time with the scores tied at nil each. The best France could manage, apart from Benzema’s eternal threat, was Sagna just before half-time who struck lead in the hunt for gold.
Blanc’s concerns at the labored first half performance were not necessarily assuaged with the second half, although it certainly proved a lot more exciting for France. Yoann Gourcuff has entered a rich vein of form having scored three goals in his past three qualifying games. Operating just off the striker in an advanced midfield role, Gourcuff scored France’s second off a Ribery cross. Malouda and Rami linked up well, and could well have shared the credit for France’s third goal had Benzema not failed at the end of a delightful build up.
Luxembourg barely threatened the French goal, or even looked keen to upset the balance of power on the field, till about three minutes from time, when the minnows launched a full-on assault on the French goalposts. Hugo Lloris who barely twitched a muscle all day long, finally had the spotlight on him for a nervy few moments and proved more than up to handling the task. Had Lloris conceded, against the run of play, it might have been a shot in the arm for Steve Mandanda, but the reserve custodian will have to bide his time for now.
Samir Nasri, Arsenal’s uncovered diamond this season, has so far failed to impress in tandem with Gourcuff. The latter may play for a lesser club, in a lesser league, but is certainly more likely to be seen as top dog in the two-man tussle for midfield control. Blanc’s biggest struggle will be getting these two to perform, and grow off of each other, failing which France shows every sign of being torn apart by teams that are especially strong in the midfield. Les Bleus, have not been able to deal with their team segments getting isolated from each other – with the forwards and attacking midfielders operating in a different time zone as compared to the central midfielders and the solid defensive ranks. Current World Champions Spain, and a newly rejuvenated England under Terry’s captaincy, would be two teams that France might come unstuck against unless Blanc gets the cohesion going in his side.
France faces Croatia in an inconsequential friendly next, and an interesting footnote is that the Croats are being managed by Slaven Bilić who play-acted his way into infamy by ensuring Laurent Blanc got sent off in the 1998 World Cup semifinals for a chin flick, and consequently missed the finals. Blanc has mellowed down and has accepted his share of blame in the incident, all too eager to put any semblance of controversy to bed while Bilić continues to insist he was entirely blameless. Some things just never die.