Memories still linger from the most disastrous of World Cup campaigns for France, when they were embarrassingly sent home in disgrace after scoring just once and earning just one point in the group stage. In came Laurent Blanc, confirmed prior to the tournament as the successor to the pilloried Raymond Domenech.
The rehabilitation process for a squad derided in France for the behaviour of the team, which went on strike during the 2010 World Cup, was lengthy. For Patrice Evra and Franck Ribery in particular, they were handed five and three game bans respectively, whilst Nicolas Anelka was effectively retired by an 18-match suspension. Blanc’s first game in charge saw him banish every single player from that World Cup campaign for a friendly with Norway. France lost that game, Blanc welcomed back the World Cup players, but they went down to defeat in their opening Euro 2012 qualifier against Belarus, though they have not suffered defeat since.
Les Bleus come into Euro 2012 as one of the form teams in Europe and a dark horse. One thing which cannot be doubted is the talent in the ranks. There is debate up front about who can stand in for Karim Benzema, but in Olivier Giroud and Loic Remy, France have two top class forwards. And they will be ably assisted by a list of playmaking attacking midfielders arguably only rivalled by Spain and Germany, in Samir Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa, Franck Ribery, Mathieu Valbuena, Jeremy Menez, Yoann Gourcuff, Marvin Martin and Yohan Cabaye. There may be doubt about how well France will do, but Blanc has plenty of tools at his disposal.
In The Dugout – Laurent Blanc
Blanc comes into this tournament with significant doubt about whether he will continue in his role afterwards. Which is more surprising when considering that France are on the longest unbeaten run of all teams coming into Euro 2012 (at the time of writing), with 18 games undefeated since 2010, including wins over England, Germany and Brazil.
However, there seems to be a dispute between Blanc and the head of the French Football Federation, Noel Le Graet, which led the former Bordeaux man to remark that success this summer would be to win just one game. Though that seems a conservative ambition, Blanc will know that he has enough talent at his disposal to do so. He had to endure a near coup last year when tape recordings of conversations between Blanc and French football officials revealed aspirations to limit the number of black and North African players in their academies. He came through that well though, vindicated and with his innocence and integrity intact, and with expectations calm, should be confident ahead of this tournament.
Key Player – Yann M’Vila
The Rennes midfielder is one of the most sought-after young players in Europe and is being chased by Arsenal and Inter Milan among others. He may not be the highest profile or technically adept player in the squad, but he will have a pivotal role. Though Benzema’s ability up front will be vital, Giroud and Remy are capable backup. But aside from M’Vila, Blanc only really has Alou Diarra as a real defensively minded midfielder who can dominate that area of the pitch, and he has endured a miserable season with Marseille. M’Vila has strength, power and leadership, as well as the technical and passing skill to link the play too. He will provide the base from which France’s attackers can build.
View from France
There is a cautious optimism ahead of this summer’s tournament in France. There are no English style proclamations of an inevitable triumph, particularly after the humbling in South Africa. But the production line of young talent is adding to hopes of a good display. A victory over Germany earlier this year underlined precisely that, with Giroud and Mathieu Debuchy particularly impressive. Added to that, more established players are starting to show their worth. In the Germany game, Nasri was notably improved, whilst Benzema has forced his way into the Real Madrid team. At the back, Laurent Koscielny and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa have had highly impressive seasons for Arsenal and Montpellier respectively, and there would be disappointment if France do not at least make the quarter-finals.
All of the Euro 2012 groups are well balanced but France appear the strongest on paper in Group D. They should edge through the first stage, and if they can win the group they would stand a good chance against the Group C runners–up, presuming Spain win that section. Les Bleus may come up short against the reigning champions or Germany, but a semi-final place is within their reach.