Coach Laurent Blanc
One to Watch Karim Benzema
As we approach the summer of 2012 all of our minds, well most of them at least, will turn away from the domestic football competitions within our own countries, towards the International arena for the eagerly awaited European Championship Finals, to be held in Poland and the Ukraine. At It’s All In The Game, I shall be profiling each of the 16 finalists that will bid to become the champions of Europe until 2016.
The French team are the subject of our next Euro 2012 profile. The French, as a nation, have a proud footballing tradition going back to 1904 when they contested their first match. As you might expect then, France have a fairly illustrious history in International competition, taking part in thirteen World Cup Finals tournaments, finishing third in 1958 and 1986 and winning the tournament in 1998 on home soil.
There have been two “Golden Generations” in the recent history of French football which have both delivered major honours. The first was in the 1980s, it included the “Magic Square” of Platini, Tigana, Giresse and Luis Fernandez, which terrorised defences. This team was unlucky not to secure at least one World Cup-beaten by West Germany in the semi-finals both in 1982 and 1986. It did, however, triumph at the European Championships held in France in 1984, France’s first success in a major tournament, with Michel Platini scoring a tournament record nine goals.
After a period of decline, which saw them fail to qualify for three of the next four major tournaments, France found a second “Golden Generation”. Including players such as Zidane, Thuram, Henry and Trezeguet, the squad added to World Cup success in 1998 by going on to be crowned European Champions in Holland two years later-Trezeguet scoring the Golden Goal winner to beat the Italians 2-1.
Much has happened to France since then, a turbulent decade has seen them fail to emerge from the Group Stage in three of the last four tournaments. In the one tournament which they did, France reached the final of World Cup 06 in Germany, only to be beaten on penalties by Italy following Zenedine Zidane’s dismissal for a headbutt on Marco Materazzi. Internal disagreements and personality clashes, between playing staff and management,plagued the French team in the years which followed, culminating in the team refusing to train during a mutinous 2010 World Cup campaign.
As things are Les Bleus have qualified for Euro 2012 by right as group winners, however they are somewhat lucky to be in that position for my money. An unconvincing set of performances which began with a defeat by Belarus in Paris, ended with France scraping through after being awarded a remarkably soft, late penalty against Bosnia-Herzogovina.
Had it not been for that favourable decision, France would have been in the play-offs and Bosnia would be through to the tournament proper. Having said that, Les Bleus only lost once and conceded only four goals in the ten games, which, I suppose, is to be expected for a team managed by Laurent Blanc.
Looking at the current France squad there are some very talented players there, for example Samir Nasri and, of course, Frank Ribery, however , the squad is lacking depth and experience, especially in defence and up front. The goal scoring responsibilities will fall very much upon the shoulders of Karim Benzema, the young Real Madrid striker.
Benzema was controversially left out of the squad for South Africa after being caught up in a scandal before the tournament so will be keen to make an impression this time round. After a rocky beginning, he has settled well in La Liga and is now a regular first choice for manager Jose Mourinho.
The imposing front-man is starting to find his best form and has scored 20 league goals for Real this season. With pace, strength, skill and composure Benzema is a match for any defence and all of France will be hoping he can keep his form going and bring it into the Euros with him, if he doesn’t, France may struggle.
France are a work in progress after all the changes brought about by the South Africa debacle, and although Blanc has done a reasonable job in steadying the ship and bringing in new players, doubts still remain over the togetherness of the squad. Recent friendly victories away to the Germans and, going back a bit further, over England at Wembley have gone a long way towards dispelling these murmurings but whether they can hold it together under the intense pressure tournament conditions is still debatable.
Les Bleus find themselves grouped together with England, Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine. With England first up, a victory over the old foe would see the French take a huge step towards winning the group. Should they accomplish that, they may well face Spain or Italy in the second round and whether they can beat the big boys on the big stage will be properly put to the test.
Zidane image by sha-put-ski. Le Parisien image by smudie.