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Dayann C writes about France and their chances at the upcoming Euros. He also looks at how the chaotic lead up to the tournament may affect Les Bleus.
Against a backdrop of problems and mishaps both within and outside of football, one word describes the natural state of things for Les Bleus going into Friday’s much anticipated opener vs Romania; tumultuous. Societal issues ranging from nationwide strikes over labour laws to 30 year high water levels as the River Seine flooded parts of Paris have compounded the multifarious footballing issues the national team has faced in the lead up to the 2016 Euros. What was once looked upon as a tournament to be ushered in with optimism will commence with a cloud of scepticism.
If the 23 man squad had been announced 12 months, or even 6 months ago, it would’ve likely looked very different. Suffice to say, the calibre of the players that will not be at the tournament could form a team to be reckoned with itself. In January, if you had asked me which position I felt was most secure in terms of depth, without hesitation the answer would have been centre back. The options available at the time were an embarrassment of riches but fast forward to the curtain raiser and the extremes of those depths have been tested. Kurt Zouma, Aymeric Laporte (although yet to register a senior cap), Raphael Varane and Jeremy Mathieu have all been stricken by injury whilst Mamadou Sakho has been entangled in a facade that meant he was essentially interdicted from selection as his availability could not have been guaranteed. Add to that the injury woes of Mathieu Debuchy and Lassana Diarra, the latter of whom had been selected off the back of a fantastic season in a woeful Marseille side, and the summation of the problems is sizable. What remains is a relatively mismatched defence whose frailties were on full display against Cameroon last week.
With the tournament opener tangibly close, the defence will be the most worrying aspect of the team for manager Didier Deschamps. Whilst both Lloris and Mandanda provide a secure first and second choice between the sticks and N’golo Kante’s tenacious work ethic will no doubt supply extra protection, the defensive selections will have to gel quickly. Adil Rami is likely to start ahead of Mangala for the spot alongside Laurent Koscielny and the communication that deserted the defensive system against Cameroon last week will need to be established rapidly. Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna’s (likely starting full backs) experience either side will also be called upon to organise the disjointed defence.
In recent tournaments, the national team has imploded off the field as much as it has disappointed on it. The events of Euro 2008, 2012 and more prominently the 2010 World Cup, left a sour taste, sullying the waters as public support back home waned. A flurry of behind the scenes petulance and disarray had damaged the reputation of the team, with performances on the field in those three major tournaments bearing the wounds. The 2014 World Cup did a lot to repair the damage between supporters and the team and the affinity only grew after the tragic attacks in Paris, November 2015. Didier Deschamps, the man who led team to its first and only world crown, all the more special as it was on home soil, had steadily remedied the issues that had hampered the team in recent memory. In 2014, the diminutive Mathieu Valbuena truly flourished, perhaps the first to really dictate the team’s attack in an enthralling manner since Zizou in 2006. The mood was upbeat going into last season with the notion that the team could truly focus on footballing issues in the run up to the tournament. But the cancerous tumour that once riddled the carcass reared its ugly head once again, as lead striker Karim Benzema and Mathieu Valbuena became embroiled in a sex scandal and a subsequent legal case. For the former, this was not the first such instance, with his absence from the 2010 World Cup squad also owing something to the sex scandal he was involved in at the time.
The implication of this occurrence was that the defendant (Benzema) left his position in the squad untenable. On the flip side, coupled with a very difficult season with injuries, Valbuena has also been omitted from the final 23 man squad, leaving the team short of one fantastic player. Valbuena has been quite gracious in the handling of the situation, stating that he was in support of the team and any feelings he had would be vented in the aftermath of the tournament, so as not to disrupt the atmosphere. Benzema was not quite so cordial, disparaging Deschamps by claiming he had succumbed to racism in France, quite a claim for a player who is being accused of a crime. His comments have been overlooked by those within the squad whilst more emblematic heroes of the past, such as Lilian Thuram, have voiced their disappointment at Benzema’s whimsical accusations. The repercussion of this entire fracas is the loss of two vastly experienced players; although I personally am not a fan of Benzema’s performances in the national team, Valbuena’s predicament is one that induces sympathy considering what he has to offer.
If the plight of the national team has been turbulent, Hatem Ben Arfa’s recent experiences have been a one man rollercoaster. When Ben Arfa signed for Nice in January 2015, he was ineligible to play, as he had already represented Newcastle and Hull that season and rules state you cannot play for three teams in one season. His situation led to a termination of that contract in February, with a pre-planned re-signing in the summer transfer window. At the time, Ben Arfa stated that even if Real Madrid had come calling, he was set on returning to France, a pretty hyperbolic expression to signify how he wanted to re-find his form that had escaped him in England. His performances over the past season have now placed him in the crosshairs of some of Europe’s biggest suitors, most notably Barcelona, a remarkable turnaround for someone that was unavailable to play at the end of last season.
His fantastic showings in the black and red of Nice produced 17 league goals and 6 assists, aiding the team to fourth place in the table, the joint highest finish for the club in 40 years. Ben Arfa was rewarded with a much-earned recall to the national team for the first time in 4 years and the once maligned attacker seemed set to dazzle at the Euros. Unfortunately, the ride was brought to a halt as quickly as it set off, as Deschamps omitted Ben Arfa from the 23 man final roster, opting instead for the likes of Dmitri Payet and more familiar players such as Moussa Sissoko and Yohan Cabaye. A disappointing conclusion for the former Lyon striker and despite the abundance of attacking talent chosen, his absence is somewhat of a letdown considering the way he terrorised defences throughout the season.
Despite all the problems, a lot of hype has surrounded the stature and strength of the French squad and perhaps Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba have induced the brunt of it. Pogba and his release from Manchester United has long been described as Sir Alex Ferguson’s greatest mistake; his individual accolades in tandem with the host of trophies the Juventus team has collected over the past few seasons has added more than a little fuel to that fire. But this tournament on home soil may be a truly defining moment in the career of the 2014 World Cup Young Player of the tournament. The two greatest French players, Michel Platini and Zinedine Zidane both produced some of their finest performances for the national team in hosted tournaments. Despite Zizou’s suspension for a significant part of the 1998 World Cup, his reprisal in the World Cup final with two headed goals extinguished any criticism. In 1984, Platini fabricated arguably the greatest single player performance at a European championship, scoring in every game on home soil to lead the team to its first major trophy. Pogba doesn’t necessarily have to be the centrepiece if France wants to win this tournament, but the nature of the team’s exit from the last World Cup called out for a leader to take the game by the scruff of the neck and insert the required urgency against a relatively tentative German team that would go on to steamroll Brazil in the semi-finals. Pogba may be only at a tender age of 23, but this could be a true folklore creator of a tournament for him if he lives up to his potential.
Whilst Pogba has been long touted, Griezmann’s meteoric rise in the last three seasons has been mesmeric, making him a staple of the French front line. His move to Atletico Madrid from Real Sociedad two seasons ago has proven a shrewd move, with him honing his finishing and even becoming an option from a direct free kick, whilst experiencing matches of the highest level, although the recent Champions League final wont rekindle fond memories. Nevertheless, the experience he has garnered has been priceless and he has become a clinical finisher, demonstrated aptly in the champions league semi final second leg when his away goal, in a game where Atletico only had 7 shots against Bayern’s 34, proved crucial in sending Diego Simeone’s men to Milan. 22 league goals in a team that only scored 63 altogether is no mean feat and Griezmann’s presence provides real promise for fans. The burden on his shoulders is greater when you consider that Kevin Gameiro (a career high 29 goals last season) and Alexandre Lacazette (23 goals in all competitions) were both selected as reserves to the main squad. If Griezmann were to replicate his club performances for the national team, it could go a long way in achieving tournament success.
The build up to the tournament has been chaotic for France, but promise remains. The attacking prowess of the squad will be expected to relieve discrepancies in defence to begin with and hopefully, as the championship ages, a sense of stability can be attained throughout the squad to give the team the best possible chance of winning the tournament at home, just like in 1984.
Written by Dayann C.