Back-to-back World cup qualifying wins for France have merely papered over the cracks.

By Howard Johnson in Paris
France’s World Cup qualification double header against Lithuania netted Raymond Domenech’s team the required six points, but it was an awfully laboured affair. After a first match away in Kaunas that coughed up an uninspired but more or less satisfactory 1-0 win, the return match at the Stade de France in Paris ended with the same scoreline but an altogether different feeling.

Despite the French crowd backing the team all the way – something that hasn’t always been the case when Les Bleus have ventured south to play in Marseilles – the performance was tepid and uninspired. Coach Domenech didn’t escape the ire of the public, though, and was booed when he appeared before the game. The national team manager, who seems to be supported by no-one but his federation, was then roundly castigated after the second match for not being able to put away a team as clearly limited as Lithuania more comprehensively.

Franck Ribéry’s winning goal in the 75th minute provided plenty of relief, but little in the way of hope for the future. Domenech’s tactics infuriated many and it’s understandable why. Starting with two hugely defensively-minded midfielders in Lassana Diarra and his namesake Alou hardly showed the kind of adventurous spirit the paying public had the right to expect for a home match against a team rated 52nd in the world.

Plus some typically random Domenech tinkering that resulted in Thierry Henry starting the game in the middle of the park rather than out on the left and Peguy Luyindula starting wide right rather than in the centre had everybody scratching their heads in disbelief. It’s almost as if Domenech deliberately makes these choices simply to be contrary.

Once the ineffective Yoann Gourcuff had been replaced by Karim Benzema and Luyindula had made way for debutant André-Pierre Gignac, the French strikers moved to their natural positions and looked way more comfortable. It’s surely no coincidence that the move that led to Ribéry’s goal was worked through Benzema, Henry and Gignac, all playing in their favoured areas.

A word here for Gignac, French domestic football’s most prolific marksman this season. Having missed his chance to make his bow for France four days previously due to injury, the Toulouse striker showed in a mere 21 minutes that he could well have a real international future ahead of him. At just 23 he already has the kind of physicality to his game that augurs well, while showing an awareness of how the game is unfolding in front of him that suggests he’s more than just a big old bull of a man.

Of course you can’t read too much into a first run-out against a weak international outfit, but the French were desperate to find some positives after such a tepid showing and Gignac undoubtedly provided one. Not so the country’s Great White Hope Yoann Gourcuff, though, whose undoubted talent was utterly transparent against Lithuania before he was rightly substituted.

Domenech now has some time to digest the lessons of these two matches. France’s next games see the country’s finest pitted against Nigeria and Turkey in friendlies at the beginning of June, before the serious World Cup qualification business starts again away against the Faroe Islands on August 12.

Qualification for South Africa is still eminently achievable, with Austria and Romania making up a fairly feeble group and only Serbia looking capable of posing any real threat to the French.

With two qualification places up for grabs it would take a cock-up of gargantuan proportions for France not to make it. The real worry, though, is the lack of cohesive, intelligent and above all exciting play from a country that has such a large number of talented individuals. Domenech’s job is to mould a team and despite his own claims to the contrary it’s patently obvious that he’s done nothing of the sort so far.