France can’t justifiably be seen as one of the favourites for Euro 2012, but they have more than enough at their disposal to be an enticing outside bet. And in Laurent Blanc they have a great thinker with a vast knowledge of European football, having played for clubs in France, Italy, Spain and England.
While Blanc may not be experienced internationally as a coach, he has already shown he can cut the mustard; and under his guidance France are unbeaten in their last 18 games – a run going back to their first Euro 2012 qualifier, back in September 2010.
On the down side, Les Bleus also had excellent players at their disposal for Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, yet still made an absolute hash of both competitions. But while there are no cast-iron guarantees they won’t implode for a third time, it looks unlikely.
Blanc has worked hard to bring in players with not only ability but also the right character. The likes of Adil Rami, skipper Hugo Lloris, Yohan Cabaye and Marvin Martin might have a lesser international profile than the members of some previous France squads, but they are honest and talented players who possess grit as well as guile.
That more humble attitude helped France come through what was at times a difficult qualifying campaign. After losing their opening match, at home to Belarus, the knives were out for Blanc, but four successive wins calmed shattered nerves. After hard-fought draws in Belarus and Romania, sandwiched around an important victory in Albania, France finished off with two home games – with victory over Albania teeing up a winner-takes-all showdown with Bosnia & Herzegovina.
France were on 20 points, the visitors on 19, and things didn’t look good when Edin Dzeko put Bosnia ahead after 40 minutes. But France kept their cool and Dzeko’s Manchester City team-mate Samir Nasri picked himself up after he was fouled in the box to convert a vital penalty on 78 minutes. The game finished 1-1 and France were through as group winners, condemning Bosnia to the play-offs.
The French press weren’t always kind to Blanc or his team during the qualifiers, but making it to the finals and only losing once along the way was still an impressive achievement from the rookie national coach. Now, though, the naturally competitive Blanc will want his team to show they have improved when they get to the Euros.
Although Group D is not the hardest in the competition, progress to the knockout stage is anything but a foregone conclusion and much will hinge on the first game, against England in Donetsk. If France can overcome the English with the same ease as the last time the two met – at Wembley in 2010, when France won 2-1 and dominated the game – then confidence will soar and they could be a team to look out for. If they lose, that often-seen tournament fragility could emerge and create doubt in the camp.
On paper, the French look good. The central defensive partnership of Rami and Philippe Mexes seems assured, while Yann M’Vila is a real powerhouse defensive midfielder. There is also plenty of creativity, particularly with the mercurial Franck Ribery coming off the back of a great season with Bayern Munich. And although Nasri hasn’t been at his best for Manchester City in the Premier League this season, you wouldn’t bet against him coming good in the summer.
The big question is what happens if Karim Benzema gets injured? Will the French have enough experienced firepower?
After embarrassing the nation at the 2010 World Cup with the infamous “players strike” incident, the French squad and management know they must represent the country with dignity and integrity in 2012.
And that might just give them the necessary rigour to pose a serious threat.
EURO 2012 FIXTURES
11.06.12 England (Donetsk, Ukr)
15.06.12 Ukraine (Donetsk, Ukr)
19.06.12 Sweden (Kiev, Ukr)
EURO 2012 SQUAD
23 Cedric Carrasso (30) 30.12.81 Bordeaux
1 Hugo Lloris (25) 26.12.86 Lyon
16 Steve Mandanda (27) 28.03.85 Marseille
22 Gael Clichy (26) 26.07.85 Manchester City (Eng)
2 Mathieu Debuchy (26) 28.07.85 Lille
3 Patrice Evra (31) 15.05.81 Manchester United (Eng)
21 Laurent Koscielny (26) 10.09.85 Arsenal (Eng)
5 Philippe Mexes (30) 30.03.82 Milan (Ita)
4 Adil Rami (26) 27.12.85 Valencia (Spa)
13 Anthony Reveillere (32) 10.11.79 Lyon
6 Yohan Cabaye (26) 14.01.86 Newcastle United (Eng)
18 Alou Diarra (30) 15.07.81 Marseille
15 Florent Malouda (31) 13.06.80 Chelsea (Eng)
19 Marvin Martin (24) 10.01.88 Sochaux
12 Blaise Matuidi (25) 09.04.87 Paris Saint-Germain
11 Samir Nasri (24) 27.06.87 Manchester City (Eng)
7 Franck Ribery (29) 07.04.83 Bayern Munich (Ger)
17 Yann M’Vila (21) 29.06.90 Rennes
20 Hatem Ben Arfa (25) 07.03.87 Newcastle United
10 Karim Benzema (24) 19.12.87 Real Madrid (Spa)
9 Olivier Giroud (25) 30.09.86 Montpellier
14 Jeremy Menez (25) 07.05.87 Paris Saint-Germain
8 Mathieu Valbuena(27) 28.09.84 Marseille
Laurent Blanc (46) 19.11.65
* Arsenal right-back Bacary Sagna was ruled out after breaking his right leg in his side’s penultimate game of the Premier League season … Tottenham Hotspur defender Younes Kaboul missed out with a knee injury … Marseille forward Loic Remy withdrew from the provisonal squad with a thigh injury …
EURO 2012 QUALIFYING CAMPAIGN
03.09.10 Belarus (h) 0-1
07.09.10 Bosnia & Herzegovina (a) 2-0
09.10.10 Romania (h) 2-0
12.10.10 Luxembourg (h) 2-0
25.03.11 Luxembourg (a) 2-0
03.06.11 Belarus (a) 1-1
02.09.11 Albania (a) 2-1
06.09.11 Romania (a) 0-0
07.10.11 Albania (h) 3-0
11.10.11 Bosnia & Herzegovina (h) 1-1
P W D L F A Pts
France 10 6 3 1 15 4 21
Bosnia & H 10 6 2 2 17 8 20
Romania 10 3 5 2 13 9 14
Belarus 10 3 4 3 8 7 13
Albania 10 2 3 5 7 14 9
Luxembourg 10 1 1 8 3 21 4
By Howard Johnson