France – Spain : answers? Maybe.

Exorcise those demons.

This is the first game for the French National Team since the hand, and they will not be taking on the easiest of challenges, facing a virtually unbeatable Spanish side that comes off a victory at Euro 2008 and a perfect WC10 qualification phase where they won all their game, scoring 25 goals in the process.

On their side, the French are not exactly brimming with the confidence, something that every coach is to expect before entering a major competition (except Roger Lemerre in 2002). The highly skeptical and critical French media has lost all faith in Domenech even before the competition and are all looking for the FNT to get thumped tonight in order to confirm their predictions of doom and gloom. The FNT comes off a series vs. Ireland where the victory could have been much easier and less controversial had Gignac decided not to give away balls to all the children of Dublin present in the stands that day in the first leg.

Therefore, the FNT is facing a helluva lot of pressure before the game tonight, and this will go to test my theory that the FNT always plays better under these compromised conditions. Nonetheless, it would be unfair to the players to draw too many conclusions for the upcoming game. France is a team that was hurt by the aftermath of “the affair” and that needs to rebuild its chemistry, something that can’t happen in the mere course of 3 days. But I am tempted to say that the players that have been put through the media-related stress will find in this event a way to get together and be stronger as a group. Is Henry’s hand the founding event of the FNT-’10 that will boost them to success in South Africa? The answer is tempting, and it is yes, and we will have a preview of it tonight.

Raymond Domenech had some surprise call-ups in stock for us all – Benoît Cheyrou, Hatem Ben Arfa, Mickaël Ciani, Louis Saha (replaced in the squad by Djibril Cissé because of an injury) – and the first answer we’ll be looking forward to is whether any of these players will get playing time tonight. Latest information handed to us by the French media indicates that Bordeaux’s Ciani is highly touted to be starting in central defense with Sevillan Julien Escudé. Cheyrou and Ben Arfa might see some game time in the second half  : which leads me to wonder whether this game will be treated as yet another way to see new players like Cheyrou or whether it will be treated like a real preparation to the WC? It is hard to tell, and Domenech has not offered any real answer either, faithful to his tradition of being as uninformative as possible.

Hooray for dessert!

Undoubtedly, the Spanish will offer a very tough challenge to France. Here is what I believe should be observed closely tonight :

Bakary Sagna : good defense, but oh-so-inefficient offensively. He has proved unable to decently place a cross during the qualification stage, and was often caught out of position on the counters that immediately followed his botched crosses.

Central defense : who will #4 be? Barring injuries, Abidal and Gallas will start against Uruguay on June 11th. Escudé has had the trust of Domenech for some time and will go to the WC. Leave it to Boumsong, Ciani and Rami to fight it out for the last position. Ciani has the edge as of now but if he doesn’t have a good game this will be up in the air again.

Defensive midfield : the sector was much criticized during the qualification stage. The usual pair of Lassana Diarra and Jérémy Toulalan were blamed for not being enough of an offensive threat, especially against weaker teams where France needed to hold on to the ball and relied on the two defensive midfielders to make the first crucial passes that would set up attacks. True, Toulalan, and to a lesser extent, Lass are not the same type of players as Patrick Vieira. Their lessened offensive prowess leaves more work to be done for the 4 men upfront, and has sometimes given the impression that the team was cut in two between the offensive foursome and the two DMs. This is where players like Sissoko and Cheyrou step up ; they have a different profile than Lass and Toulalan and are more capable of making those first passes that orientate attacks.

The other question is more defensive-minded : will Lass and Toulalan be able to control a midfield made up of Xavi, Iniesta and Xabi Alonso, to only cite them? Possession is key for the Selección and if Lass and Toulalan can deprive them of the ball and/or hamper their ability to circulate the ball around, then France will have made a step in the right direction towards winning the game. In this respect, Lass playing with Real Madrid and Toulalan having played Madrid recently will not be totally useless – an argument than can be turned around, if you want to play devil’s advocate.

Offensive midfielders : Franck Ribéry has insisted that his favorite position is left midfielder and has asked Domenech to be played there. True, he has not shown with the FNT the same efficiency and decisiveness he shows at Bayern Munich when he plays LM, but I believe that a player as talented as he is can play anywhere. This controversy is perfectly timed with what is know the Thierry Henry problem. Since coming back from injury, he has only started one game for Barcelona, where he has seen Pedro gain the trust of Pep Guardiola, and where even Bojan now seems to be higher in the hierarchy. The FNT will bring Henry some fresh air, and let’s hope that Guardiola gives him some significant playing time before the WC. Henry has the ability to carry the team and it would be a shame to have him out of form come June.

Attack : Anelka is slated to be playing as the sole striker tonight. As much as he is an amazing player, I do not think he is fit for this very demanding role that is asked of him. He is most efficient when he plays off someone like Drogba at Chelsea. Obviously Domenech will not afford him this pleasure and Anelka will continue to do what he can. This begs the question of Domenech’s tactics, which have come under fire during the qualification stage, and of their inefficiency. France has the hardest of time scoring goals and that will remain a challenge tonight, against a tough Spanish defense. I would have loved to see Saha get a crack at the Spaniards tonight but unfortunately his body – once again – got the best of him, which might cost him a WC spot.

Surprise : no eyesores expected

Here is France’s projected XI for tonight :

Lloris – Evra, Ciani, Escudé, Sagna – Diarra,, Toulalan – Henry, Gourcuff, Ribéry – Anelka

On a more trivial note, look for France to be donning their new white/away jersey tonight at Stade de France. I am already a fan of it and I’ll soon be donning it with Toulalan name & numbering.

Enjoy the game tonight.

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4 Responses

  1. love the white EDF jerseys. The blue…not so much.

    I think you hit it Martin; for me one of the main jobs of a national team coach is still get a group of guys together and come up with a philosophy for their game. It doesn’t have to be based in national stereotypes (Dunga’s 1994 Brazil team won by playing Italian) but it has to be coherent enough so that players from all different clubs can step in and know that they have a specific role to play. I still think the French team is better than the French media make them out to be.

    “J’ai pas l’habitude d’entrer dans les polemiques. En general, je FAIS la polemique.”

    -Raymond Domenech

  2. You missed out Squillaci. He’s a contender for a centre-back slot, and would have been in the squad tonight but for injury.

  3. Alex :

    – read this article by Les Cahiers du Foot about the blue jersey : http://www.cahiersdufootball.net/article.php?id=3388

    – This is exactly the problem Domenech has : no real identity as to how France plays. The 4-5-1 has been set for some time now, yet it still seems we’re not getting much out of it and people have legitimately asked why it wouldn’t be up for change.
    – Players playing out of position. You might know what kind of role you have to play in the team, but Henry LM and Ribéry RM is kind of pushing it for me…
    – If you just look at the players, France is in the top 10 of best teams in the world.
    – And you just never know what France will come up with. The contrast between WC06 and €08 are so blatant. Let’s hope we’re back in a positive spiral ; as I hypothesized in my piece, the handball could be a good thing in the long run.

    Papinade:

    I did forget Squillacci. I thought about it after posting but then ran out of time for further editing. Thanks for pointing it out. If Ciani has a good game, there could be competition, even if Squilacci has the egde.

    • It was a really good read. Shame that both centre-halves looked out of their depth last night….

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