In the build-up to France’s final two Euro 2012 qualifiers, the French press have been quick to draw comparisons with the situation that faced Les Bleus at the end of their ill-fated qualification campaign for the 1994 World Cup.
Needing just a single point from their last two matches at home to Israel and Bulgaria, Gérard Houllier’s side somehow conspired to lose both to gut-wrenching last-minute goals. The stunning failure confirmed France’s unwelcome reputation for producing gifted but psychologically fragile sportsmen and the trauma of the event was only partially alleviated by the outcome of the next World Cup on home soil five years later.
Laurent Blanc was in the France team on that fateful November night at the Parc des Princes in 1993 but despite a despairing lunge he could not prevent Emil Kostadinov from slamming home the goal that brought the sky down on the hosts in the very last second of normal time, after David Ginola’s infamous overhit cross at the other end moments earlier.
The France coach has fielded plenty of questions this week about the similarities between the events of 18 years ago and the permutations confronting the present French side, who will take on Albania and Bosnia-Herzegovina in the space of five days at Stade de France with only four points separating them from a place at Euro 2012.
In quieter moments, however, he may reflect that the current situation bears more of a resemblance to the time that preceded the darkest days of his managerial career to date, when he could only look on powerlessly as his Bordeaux side surrendered their Ligue 1 crown in one of the most astonishing collapses in the championship’s history.
Christmas 2009 found defending champions Bordeaux nine points clear in the league and looking forward to a Champions League tie with Olympiakos after breezing through a group that featured both Bayern Munich and Juventus. What happened next was difficult to believe. Having won 14 of the 19 games prior to the winter break, Bordeaux won just five in the second half of the season and slumped to sixth in the table following a run-in that saw them pick up eight points from a possible 30 in their final 10 games. The goals dried up for Marouane Chamakh, while Yoann Gourcuff slipped into a slump from which he is yet to emerge.
Eliminated from the Champions League in the last eight, Les Girondins traversed the closing stages of the season like ghosts, devoid of inspiration on the pitch and incapable of providing convincing explanations for their performances off it. The immense wave of momentum that had swept them to the Coupe de la Ligue and the league title the season before had evaporated and Blanc was unable to manufacture a second wind. It was not until the dust had settled that Brazilian defensive midfielder Fernando put his finger on the problem.
“For me it was like a plane crash,” he said. “There’s never just one reason. To begin with we placed more importance on the Champions League than the league. Everyone started dreaming. So, when we got knocked out by Lyon in the quarter-finals, it was a hard blow to take to our morale. After that, our tactics were based on playing with Marouane Chamakh, our goalscorer. But he’d given so much that, by the end, he couldn’t give any more. I also think that the squad was poorly managed. There were 14 of us who played over 40 matches. The substitutes didn’t get enough game time.”
Eighteen months later, Blanc finds himself in charge of a squad in similar need of a boost from its second-string players. Injuries to first-team stalwarts like Karim Benzema, Franck Ribéry, Philippe Mexès and Bacary Sagna have forced him to turn to their understudies, but they have barely figured in the qualifying campaign to date due to Blanc’s decision to squarely place his trust in a select group of players.
His tenure as France coach has been characterised by consistency of selection in terms of both the squads he names and the teams he fields – Bafétimbi Gomis was the only new name in the squad for Albania and Bosnia - but a side-effect of that is that those on the fringes of the squad have not been given opportunities to get used to the way the team operates.
Blanc admitted as much earlier this week when Benzema was ruled out with a groin injury. Selected to start every time he has been fit, Benzema is integral to France’s style under Blanc and the coach admitted that none of his potential replacements offer the same solutions. Kévin Gameiro (who has since been ruled out as well) needs space behind the defence that France’s opponents will not afford them, he said, as do Loïc Rémy and Djibril Cissé, while Gomis is too reliant on crosses from wide areas.
Any team would miss a striker of Benzema’s quality but Blanc could come to regret his fixation with creating a tightly knit group of highly motivated players at the expense of exploiting the depth of his squad. A well-established first XI is all well and good when everyone is fit and firing, but it obliges faith to be placed in under-used back-up players when injuries, tiredness and losses of form inevitably strike. Blanc has proved his knack for harnessing the momentum that a winning team creates, but momentum alone can only take a team so far.
Blanc will always be remembered in Bordeaux for the trophies he delivered to Stade Chaban-Delmas, but their mid-winter collapse nine months later remains an indelible stain on his managerial CV. France should have no trouble closing out qualification from Group D, but if they fall short, memories of 1993 will not be the only demons that dog their manager’s conscience.