James Lawton: Benzema helps France recreate verve and style of their glorious past
Of course, in England we like to say the entire team is drawn from Europe's dominant league but we know what a small percentage that really represents
Thursday 18 November 2010
The self-destructive French football revolution, we can reasonably assume, is over. Some of their players perhaps did not sing the world's most rousing national anthem with the passion displayed by their patriotic and legendary coach Laurent Blanc, but they did fulfil their contractual requirement at least to mouth the words.
More significantly, and certainly damaging to Fabio Capello's hopes that out of injury crisis he might just feel the miraculous warm breath of a new and thrilling young England, the French also remembered how to play some of the superior football that, not so long ago, made them one of the glories of the world game.
No one could read any ultimate meaning into the performance of an England bereft of so many key players and the odds against them achieving their first victory in 13 years over the world champions of 1998 and masters of Europe in 2000 were stretched even longer by an exquisite combination of Florent Malouda's craft and Karim Benzema's finishing touch after 16 minutes.
But then, maybe even Capello's World Cup trauma probably didn't prepare him for the huge gulf between the teams before he threw in the Manchester City pair Micah Richards and Adam Johnson after half-time. Plainly, the England coach had to reach for something of strength and impact to counter a French superiority that at times was embarrassing. Capello's grim expression naturally deepened when, early in the second half, Mathieu Valubuena scored quite as emphatically as had Benzema when the lightly used Real Madrid striker first announced something that could only be described as a cultural divide.
If Capello, once again, was feeling deeply ambushed by his circumstances, it was understandable enough in the company of Blanc.
Not only did his counterpart have the perfect background to create a renaissance of French football spirit, a hero's role in the World Cup triumph and a superb record of commitment in the blue shirt, he could also call on players groomed to play exactly to his every demand.
France had a new verve after the nightmare years of the eccentric Raymond Domenech but also had the confidence to play in the way in which they had been been shaped since their first days in French football. When the talk is of the best leagues in European football the French, of course, languish far from the front of the pack, makeweights beside the power and the glamour of the Premier League, Serie A, La Liga and the Bundesliga. But they do know how to make superb footballers, don't they?
We saw that again last night as Steven Gerrard, a captain again when Rio Ferdinand left at half-time, threw himself at the task of rescuing something from the debris of what threatened to be nothing less than a degree of psychological slaughter. He got through on a run which almost brought him a headed goal and he desperately sought to build some kind of rhythm.
It was gruelling, spirit-sapping work, however, and the feeling of futility can only have been intensified by the sweet understanding and ball playing of established French stars like Malouda and Samir Nasri. Nor was there much relief when he looked beyond such luminaries. Yoann Gourcuff of Lyons, a 24-year-old of growing reputation, showed that within French football there is indeed a depth of talent reflected by the fact that more than half the team operated beyond their own shores.
Of course, in England we like to say the entire team is drawn from Europe's dominant league but we know what a small percentage that really represents. It was certainly a reality that such as Jordan Henderson of Sunderland and Andy Carroll of Newcastle were hard pushed to blur as the French so often seemed to be operating on an entirely different level.
When Peter Crouch scored in the 86th minute there was a surge of hope, perhaps even shared by the careworn Capello, that England might just preserve their unbeaten record at Wembley under the Italian regime which started so promisingly. It was not the outlandish ambition in might have seemed earlier the game, before the subs came marching on, but then really it could not mean so much.
The truth was that the French had played football that had dimensions which must have encouraged Blanc to believe that he can indeed win some old glory and belief in the destiny of the game that once wielded so much pride and influence.
At the very least, he had seen much support for his argument that young French players should think more carefully before they rush too quickly from their breeding grounds to the lure of Premier League gold.
The French do not have so much of that yellow stuff, perhaps, but let no one say that they have forgotten how to make beautiful – and winning – football.
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