French flair is back in fashion
England beware. After a shambolic World Cup (even worse than Capello's) France are thriving again and will be formidable opposition at Euros
France's friendly victory in Germany was the surprise of international week, prompting boos from a Bremen crowd not used to anti-climax where their vibrant national team are concerned. Given their precarious relationship with their own home crowd at the Stade de France, Les Bleus probably spared a thought for their hosts.
"We're starting to build something good," Tottenham's Louis Saha said after the match, "especially away from home. Germany are well-renowned, so we proved today that we're a good team." Little by little, France are beginning to recover the trust of a nation scandalised by the players' training strike in protest at Nicolas Anelka's expulsion from the 2010 World Cup squad in South Africa. Bridges are being built ahead of the Euro 2012 opener against England in Donetsk on 11 June.
Whereas England carried on under Fabio Capello after their World Cup disappointment, France started from scratch under Laurent Blanc, a legend from the victorious 1998 World Cup side. French society's outrage at their team's behaviour meant Blanc was forced to begin with a fresh canvas. All 23 World Cup squad members were banned from the new coach's debut, an August 2010 friendly in Norway.
The shoots of recovery have been promising, thanks to the emergence of players like Yann M'Vila – who made his debut in that match in Oslo – and Newcastle's Yohan Cabaye. Victory at the Weserstadion extended France's unbeaten run to an impressive 18 matches, and though Blanc has suggested his team "lack a bit of personality and experience", beating Joachim Löw's side means they cannot fly under the radar for much longer. If England have forgotten the élan with which France triumphed at Wembley in November 2010, this performance should remind them.
"It's rare for a team to come to Germany and get a result," said Florent Malouda."It's not just the win, but also our performance and quality of play tonight that's good for the confidence. We did the same thing with the win at Wembley, and this is even better because it's against a better team."
If the shadow of the mutiny of Knysna still looms large over French football, so does defeat in the Stade de France friendly against Spain in the March preceding that tournament. Well beaten by a pair of David Villa goals, Les Bleus were taught a humiliating lesson and in their fragile confidence, the sporting nation feared a repeat in Bremen. Friendly or not, this match mattered. "It's a matter of prestige," Blanc had insisted."I'm realistic, because the German team has a bit more surety in their game than ours." Neither is the coach beyond self-criticism. "They have a coach who has proved himself too," he said.
A pillar of France's golden generation as a player, Blanc sets the bar high, and sees no shame in trying to follow Germany's example of regeneration. "They're one of the cornerstones of European – and world – football," he underlined. "It's not industrial espionage. We have the right to come and see what they're doing better than us. Germany are a great team. I'm expecting mine to finally show some improvements in their game."
Despite Blanc playing up the transitory nature of his side, they showed in Bremen that they have power and character in key areas. A long-time Arsenal target, M'Vila played with the poise of a holding midfielder 10 years his senior, and Cabaye snaps and passes the ball with the same strut that he has displayed for the bulk of the Premier League season. The pair have reduced Alou Diarra, Blanc's trusted lieutenant and captain from their time together at Bordeaux, to a bit-part player.
The renewal of the central defensive partnership of Philippe Mexès and Adil Rami also provided assurance, and the latter's return from a long injury lay-off is a huge boost for Blanc. They are not perfect, but have the physicality and speed to cover each other's minor caprices. France have never conceded more than once in any match during the current unbeaten streak.
Close friends off the pitch, Mexès and Rami were instrumental in Blanc's solid start to life at the helm. The coach's plan against Germany drew on the high points of his reign so far, such as freeing Samir Nasri into the central role in which he so thrived in the November 2010 win at Wembley. The Manchester City midfielder was increasingly influential as the game went on, dictating France's attacks as they dominated.
Germany are the latest scalp after friendly wins over England and Brazil under Blanc. The next step is for French promise to become regular product. "We didn't get this result by accident," Malouda said. "We have to strive to be more consistent. If we can show this discipline and effort in competitive games, then we can surprise people."
The biggest surprise for England come summer in Ukraine may be the relative youth of Blanc's line-up. The survivors of France's last high point, the 2006 World Cup final, are being increasingly marginalised. Malouda's second-half goal against the Germans may have been a joyful relief from his travails at Chelsea, but he is unlikely to make the starting XI come kick-off in Donetsk. The new generation rules, as far as Blanc is concerned.
Even Franck Ribéry, enjoying a renaissance for Bayern Munich but with a public approval rating in France that compares with that of the lampooned former coach Raymond Domenech, is not safe. He was a rare disappointment on the night in Bremen, and was replaced by Paris St-Germain's Jérémy Ménez at half-time. Ménez was impressive, and Blanc admits Ribéry is at risk. "He's playing well for his club," he acknowledged pre-match, "though it's taking him a while to do the same for France."
Saha will come under similar pressure, with the injured Karim Benzema and Loïc Rémy set to return, but reinvigorated by his move to north London, he is already hoping to face England. "Like Germany, they're a team that's very positive," he said. "It's going to be a huge match. With the pressure of a major competition on, I imagine that the English will be super-motivated."
"It's clear that the departure of your coach a few months before an international competition isn't ideal," Saha said. "At the same time we know that their tactics might change, but it's not something that's easy to sort out for a new coach. It's something that could be positive for the France team."
Malouda is cautious, warning that France have everything to prove, having failed to progress from the group stage in their last two major tournaments. "The most important thing is always the first match," he said."It's vital if you want to get anywhere in the competition and there will be huge pressure on for both teams. We don't have any room for mistakes if we're going to qualify. We don't want to leave it down to the third [group] game."
France are itching to bury past mistakes, and are keen to take their frustrations out on England.
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