Posts Tagged ‘France’

England lose perspective in pursuit of teenage kicks

The French may not have a direct equivalent to the word ‘teenager’ (there being no numerical suffix akin to ‘-teen’ in the language of Molière), but that doesn’t stop them remarking on the novelty when a player under the age of 20 is called up by the national team.

It happened twice earlier this month, when 19-year-olds Raphaël Varane and Paul Pogba were both included in Didier Deschamps’ squad for the World Cup qualifiers against Georgia and Spain. Pogba rather spoilt the symmetry by turning 20 the following day, but it was such a rarity that L’Équipe marked the occasion with a photographic slideshow of the players to have graced the blue jersey while still awaiting the end of their second decade.

Varane and Pogba are exceptions. The expectation, in France, is that players will earn their spurs in the junior versions of the national team before eventually graduating to the senior side. France’s under-21 squad – known as les Espoirs (literally, ‘the hopes’) – brims with exciting players such as Milan striker M’Baye Niang and the Lyon pair of Clément Grenier and Alexandre Lacazette, but although they play for some of the biggest clubs in Europe, there is no clamour for them to be promoted to the senior squad before they are ready. That is partly down to the depth of talent already at Deschamps’ disposal, but it is also, partly, cultural.

Exceptional indeed is the player who is excused an apprenticeship in France’s representative youth teams. Despite Pogba’s widely acclaimed performances for Juventus this season, Deschamps has admitted to reluctance about allowing him to stroll straight into the first-team set-up. As recently as January, the former Marseille manager said the midfielder still needed “some carrot and stick” before he could be considered for selection. Both Pogba and Varane impressed on their debuts against Georgia on Friday, but afterwards the word on Deschamps’ lips was “potential”.

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Analysis: France firing blanks as Spain loom into view

“Karim Benzema is still to score in the [Didier] Deschamps era, but he and Franck Ribéry often appear the only players capable of making things happen in the final third. The Real Madrid striker could have scored three or four goals against Japan before being withdrawn at half-time, while Ribéry tested [Eiji] Kawashima twice within minutes of entering the fray as a 68th-minute substitute. As L’Equipe drily noted on Saturday, “without Benzema and Ribery, nothing much happens”.”

I’ve written a piece for AFP on France’s misfiring forwards, ahead of Tuesday’s pivotal World Cup qualifier with Spain in Madrid. You can read it here.

Heft and harmony at the heart of Deschamps’ France blueprint

Didier Deschamps may have been overlooked for the France job in both 2008 and 2010, but upon finally taking up the role in July this year, he found the problems facing the national coach had barely changed.

As in 2010 and, to a lesser extent, 2008, France emerged from this year’s major tournament chastened by sporting underachievement and embarrassed by reports of off-pitch turmoil. The fall-out from Euro 2012 was nowhere near as painful as it was after the rank humiliation of the 2010 World Cup, nor were the performances as poor as they were either in South Africa or at Euro 2008, but Deschamps knows that there is nonetheless, if not a full rebuilding process, then a period of recalibration to be undertaken.

For all the criticism of France’s conservative approach against Spain in the Euro 2012 quarter-finals, and all the tales of changing-room unrest that abounded, Laurent Blanc clearly left the team in a far healthier state than he had found it. Three months after taking up the reins from his former international team-mate, Deschamps is already making his mark by attempting to create a side that packs more of a punch on the pitch, but generates fewer headlines off it.

In his first press conference after taking over, Deschamps said he wanted to build a side that “imposes itself on its opponents”, and the most striking thing about the teams that he has fielded in his three games so far has been their physicality.

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Report: France exorcise Belarus ghost to claim second win

“PARIS — France took control of their 2014 World Cup qualifying group by overcoming a second-half wobble to beat former bêtes noires Belarus 3-1 at Stade de France on Tuesday.”

My AFP match report on France’s victory over Belarus, which featured first international goals for Étienne Capoue and Christophe Jallet, as well as a man-of-the-match performance from Franck Ribéry, can be read here.

Report: France held by Uruguay on Deschamps debut

“LE HAVRE, France — The curse of the goalless draw struck again for France and Uruguay on Wednesday, as Didier Deschamps’ first game at the French helm ended in a 0-0 stalemate in Le Havre.”

Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, Christophe Jallet and Étienne Capoue all made their international debuts as France were held by Uruguay in front of a less than appreciative crowd at Le Havre’s futuristic Stade Océane. Read my AFP match report here.

Related link: Deschamps unruffled by France’s boo brigade

Feature: Black sheep Nasri puts France future in jeopardy

“The Manchester City midfielder began the tournament with a man-of-the-match performance in the 1-1 draw with England, but went home in disgrace after a foul-mouthed rant at a journalist from AFP. A talented but confrontational member of the squad, Nasri’s dwindling influence mirrored France’s fading performances and his off-pitch indiscretions mean his place in the national set-up is now in jeopardy.”

My piece on why Samir Nasri’s behaviour during Euro 2012 has put his international career at risk, including details of his mixed-zone outburst at one of my colleagues from AFP, can be read here. There’s also a more general analysis of France’s performance at the tournament here.

Related link: Nasri the scapegoat as French media probe France’s fissures

Report: Centurion Alonso sends Spain into Euro semi-finals

“DONETSK, Ukraine — Spain moved a step closer to an unprecedented treble of consecutive major international honours by beating France 2-0 in Donetsk on Saturday to reach the Euro 2012 semi-finals.”

My AFP match report on France’s rather feeble quarter-final exit at the hands of Spain can be found here, while you’ll find a Laurent Blanc reaction piece here.

Feature: Reports of friction see France’s old fears return

“DONETSK, Ukraine — In 2010, it started with a headline in L’Équipe. Two years on, France’s leading sports newspaper has lifted the lid on fresh tension in the French squad at Euro 2012.”

I wrote a piece for AFP on the old demons threatening to re-emerge in  the France camp. You can read it here.

Reaction: France reflect on what might have been

DONETSK, Ukraine – France’s players admitted to frustration after failing to turn their dominance into victory against England in their Euro 2012 opener but took heart from their reaction to falling behind.”

My reaction piece on France’s 1-1 draw with England on Monday can be read here.

Floundering Gourcuff handed unlikely France reprieve

From the outside, the striking thing was the fact that it was headline news at all. Gourcuff named in France squad. Yoann Gourcuff, heir apparent to Zinedine Zidane, darling of Bordeaux’s 2009 title-winning side, was this week selected in Laurent Blanc’s preliminary squad for Euro 2012. And it was the biggest story in town.

Anticipation of the squad announcement had centred on whether or not Gourcuff would get the call, at the end of a season in which injuries and poor form have restricted him to just 13 league appearances for Lyon, culminating in a sending-off for violent conduct against Ajaccio on Sunday. “It’s not anecdotal,” said Blanc of the red card, which Gourcuff received for an off-the-ball altercation with Ajaccio’s Jean-Baptiste Pierazzi. “It proves that the boy isn’t in top form, both physically and mentally.”

Gourcuff’s inclusion in the 26-man squad therefore came as something of a surprise, but how has a player for whom such a bright future was predicted fallen so far?

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Right-wing repositioning opens Ben Arfa’s route to Euro 2012

In recent weeks, Hatem Ben Arfa has started to look like the player he had always threatened to become.

With two goals and three assists in his last four appearances, the 25-year-old is the form attacking midfielder in the Premier League. There have been flurries of eye-catching form in the past, but he has rarely played such daring, decisive football on such a consistent basis and against such strong opposition.

The catalyst for his spring renaissance was the January arrival of Papiss Demba Cissé, who was signed to link up with his Senegal team-mate, Demba Ba. With two prolific strikers at his disposal, Newcastle United coach Alan Pardew was forced to abandon his long-held ambition to deploy Ben Arfa as a number 10 behind a lone striker. He has re-emerged on the right.

Ben Arfa started on the right flank for the first time in the league this season in Newcastle’s 5-2 defeat at Fulham on January 21 (a game in which he scored), but it was not until March 18, and a 1-0 win at home to Norwich City, that he was included in the same starting line-up as Cissé and Ba. The trio subsequently started in the slick 3-1 win at West Bromwich Albion and last weekend’s 2-0 defeat of Liverpool at St James’ Park. After opening the scoring in the 2-1 defeat at Arsenal, Ben Arfa scored once and created the two other goals at West Brom and was then instrumental in both goals against Liverpool.

Over the course of those recent games, Newcastle’s shape has slowly morphed from a lopsided 4-4-2 into something resembling an orthodox 4-3-3, as Ben Arfa has become the focal point for his side’s attacking play on the right flank and Pardew has responded by adding more ballast to the centre of midfield.

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France 24 podcast: A look at the French national football team

I caught up with my friend Dan Levy last week, to talk about France’s chances at Euro 2012 on the France 24 podcast. We discussed France’s friendly victory over Germany, the likely composition of Les Bleus‘ starting line-up at the tournament, and Laurent Blanc’s stand-off with the French Football Federation over their unwillingness to offer him a new contract. You can listen to our conversation here.

NB: The podcast was recorded before news broke that Éric Abidal requires a liver transplant operation, which is likely to compromise his chances of playing at Euro 2012.

Blanc’s France still searching for an identity

For a team protecting an unbeaten record that now stretches to 543 days, France will approach Wednesday night’s friendly against Germany in Bremen with a surprising degree of uncertainty.

Since going down 1-0 at home to Belarus in Laurent Blanc’s first competitive game in charge in September 2010, France have qualified for Euro 2012 – without recourse to the play-offs – and enjoyed friendly wins over England, Brazil and the United States (as well as some forgettable draws against Croatia, Chile and Belgium).

Viewed from the outside, and against a backdrop of the self-inflicted humiliation of the 2010 World Cup, Les Bleus are turning things around. Bubbling beneath the statistics, however, are a multitude of concerns about the team’s style of play and a lack of both experience and leadership within the squad, while an ongoing contract dispute between Blanc and French Football Federation president Noël Le Graët suggests Blanc’s employers remain to be convinced by the direction the team is taking.

Blanc pledged to introduced panache and risk-taking to France’s football following his appointment in the aftermath of the infamous Knysna training ground mutiny, but although France have become solid and difficult to beat, their play has not captured the imagination since the first game of their current 17-match unbeaten run – a 2-0 victory over Bosnia-Herzegovina in Sarajevo that came four days after the setback against Belarus.

Then, a team anchored by a midfield pairing of Yann M’Vila and Alou Diarra, driven forward by the lolloping raids of Abou Diaby and centred around the new-found efficacy of Karim Benzema had hinted at a glorious future for Blanc’s France. Now, although Benzema has gone from strength to strength at Real Madrid, the team has lost its way.

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Report: Blanc looks on bright side after narrow France win

“PARIS — Laurent Blanc tried to emphasise the positives after watching France begin their preparations for Euro 2012 with a lacklustre 1-0 friendly win over the United States at Stade de France on Friday.”

Read my AFP match report here.

Reaction: Blanc concerned by new France injuries

France are a point from a place at Euro 2012 after beating Albania 3-0 on Friday, but fresh injuries have stretched Laurent Blanc’s resources even more thinly ahead of Tuesday’s game with Bosnia-Herzegovina. You can read my AFP reaction piece from Stade de France here.

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