Wily Blanc injects some urgency into French campaign
France 2 Romania 0
Coaches do not win matches, but Laurent Blanc deserved much of the credit for France's first home victory under his charge here last night. Nerves were starting to get the better of his team when Blanc made three crucial substitutions in the second half that changed the course of this European Championship qualifier in Group D.
Yoann Gourcuff, a playmaker who excelled under Blanc at Bordeaux, Loïc Rémy, a young striker from Marseille, and Dimitri Payet, a midfielder from St Etienne, provided just the impetus that Blanc's increasingly edgy team needed.
After 82 minutes, Alou Diarra's superb through ball sent Rémy clear and the striker found the far corner of the net with a perfectly placed shot. As France swarmed forward, Gourcuff added a second with the last kick of the match, scoring from 10 yards after a wonderful jinking run down the right by Payet.
It was no less than France deserved, though for a while it had seemed they were still affected by the repercussions of their traumatic World Cup. Blanc's team played well enough for the first hour, but as frustration got the better of them Romania worked their way back into the match and for a while threatened to steal an unlikely win.
Blanc, who took over from Raymond Domenech after France's South African débâcle, had not got off to the best of starts, with defeats in a friendly against Norway and in their opening qualifier against Belarus, but a win away to Bosnia last month put their first points on the board and this win will do much for their confidence.
Romania, it has to be said, are not the force they were in the days of Gheorghe Hagi and Gheorghe Popescu. Internazionale's Cristian Chivu, the captain, is their only current player who might be considered world-class and they have started their qualifying campaign moderately, with just two points from draws against Albania and Belarus. They have won only once in the last 11 months.
There was a promising shape to the French team. Diarra, captain for the second time under Blanc, and Yann M'Vila provided a powerful base in midfield, allowing Samir Nasri, Florent Malouda and Mathieu Valbuena the freedom to push forward in support of Karim Benzema. Nasri and Valbuena eventually gave way to Gourcuff and Rémy, but both had made good contributions.
France dominated the first half without creating more than an occasional half-chance. Nasri, making characteristically mazy runs from midfield, combined well with Benzema, who led the line with a verve that has all too often been missing at Real Madrid.
Romania were frequently stretched, but Chivu was magnificent in defence, intercepting through balls and diving in to make last-ditch blocks. Nasri set up the best opportunity of the first half when his clever chip freed Malouda on the left, but the Chelsea man fired into the side netting.
France left the field to barely justified jeers at half-time – this stadium can be hard to please – but a thrilling passage of play early in the second half brought the crowd to life. Costel Pantilimon spectacularly deflected a Valbuena shot against the bar, while Nasri made a splendid break down the left, only to go for goal when he should have pulled the ball back to Benzema.
Romania did not have an attack of note in the first half, but within a minute of the restart Bogdan Stancu's break down the left opened up the home defence and Hugo Lloris was forced to make a flying save from George Florescu. As the Romanians came out of their shell, France's back four started to creak. Ciprian Deac, a substitute, regularly found space down the right and from one of his crosses Ionut Sapunaru shot against a post.
It was time for Blanc to show his qualities. Rémy, who should have added a second when he headed Malouda's cross over the bar, was an immediate threat on the right, while Gourcuff quickly made his mark. If France can win their next match, against Luxembourg in Metz on Tuesday, their qualifying campaign will be firmly back on track.
Two goals from Niko Kranjcar gave Croatia a 2-1 win over Israel, sending them to the top of Group F. His first was from the penalty spot in the 36th minute, the second from a neat attack five minutes later. Etay Shechter's consolation goal came 10 minutes from the end.
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