Les Bleus see red in wake of defeat
SPAIN v FRANCE:Laurent Blanc seems destined to lose the dressing room unless he reasserts his authority, writes EMMET MALONE
DOUBTS ABOUT Laurent Blanc’s ability to rally his wounded French squad following Tuesday’s comprehensive defeat by Sweden and post-match dressing room row persisted yesterday.
The French media is divided on whether the country’s hopes of beating Spain tonight effectively evaporated in Kiev.
Unsurprisingly, the observation by assistant coach Alain Boghossian that the spat was “nothing like as bad as two years ago”, has done little to calm the nation’s nerves back home.
Boghossian was also part of the coaching team in South Africa when the squad mutinied so comically under then manager Raymond Domenech, but Blanc was brought in since to mend battered morale and rebuild an ageing team. Things got off to a slightly shaky start with the French losing their opening qualifier of this campaign at home to Belarus but the former international, who enjoyed considerable success in his short first spell in club management – with Bordeaux – had seemed to successfully stamp his authority on the players since then and they came through to win the group, albeit with Samir Nasri having to convert a penalty within 12 minutes of the end of their last game to ensure top spot.
Now, however, things do not appear to be running quite so smoothly. Florent Malouda, emboldened perhaps by the successful outbreak of player power at Chelsea this year, has been critical since losing his place following the draw with England. Alou Diarra is reckoned to have had a go on Tuesday night at Nasri – who many within the squad apparently feel is not a team player – and Blanc is reported to have had a row with Hatem Ben Arfa who apparently told the former centre back that if he did not have trust in him then he should send him home.
Trust, in fact, appears to be a central theme in all of this. The 46-year-old manager is sometimes criticised for not knowing his best team. He made the strange decision to acknowledge, in the wake of the defeat by Sweden, that he had probably not fielded his best side.
Blanc’s job is on the line because French federation president Noel Le Graet has consistently refused to discuss a new contract until this championship is out of the way. Blanc had railed against what he perceived to be an insult and insisted he would not stick around if a deal was not struck in advance of the tournament. However, his boss not only held his nerve but aggravated the situation by vetoing some of the manager’s proposed team preparations.
Now, some tough talking is likely to take place whenever the side goes out of the tournament, with Blanc needing a good show in order to gain the upper hand.
Although the French have never lost a competitive game to their southern neighbours, doing so now would not, in itself, constitute a failure. But if they do go out in the quarter-final against Spain when top spot in the group appeared there for the taking is likely to be brought up fairly swiftly in any post championship review.
Le Monde was certainly scathing in their report of the loss, running the story under the headline suffisant – by which, in this instance, they meant smug rather than sufficient. When he composed himself a little, Blanc obviously preferred to see things a little differently, acknowledging that the Swedes had completely outplayed his side but adding that it was a somewhat secondary matter.
“I congratulate them because they were excellent,” he said, “but they are going home”.
It was, of course, a fair point with his own side having progressed on the basis of two much stronger performances – a draw with England in which they dominated the latter stages and a fairly comfortable defeat of Ukraine – but there was clearly a sense of shock too on the part of the manager at the way his players had failed to maintain that early momentum.
“We worked hard to finish top of the group but haven’t managed that and so we have to deal with it,” he said. “We knew this game was going to be difficult but did we think it would be that difficult? No, we didn’t expect that. It is hard to imagine us beating Spain after something like that.”
That much is certainly true. The French have talent in every department and Blanc has been brave in the way he has given young players their chance at this level with some pretty big names being discarded. Under his guidance, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris has become a really big player for the team, Valencia’s Adil Rami has formed a strong central defensive partnership with Philippe Mexes and Yann M’Vila has shown early evidence of being the really top quality defensive midfielder the team has been missing for a few years now.
Collectively, though, this remains a side that can make hard work of things when its star individuals are not playing well and it does not collectively perform. True, they were 23 games unbeaten heading into the meeting with Sweden and had beaten England, Brazil and Germany over the course of that run but all of the big names were seen off in friendlies. In their group they only beat the bottom two sides – Albania and Luxembourg – home and away, scoring just 15 goals in their 10 matches compared with Spain’s 26 in eight.
Nasri, who could potentially find himself a victim in the aftermath of of the infighting, remains upbeat, overly so one suspects. The Manchester City player insists he is pleased to be playing Spain rather than Italy as the game will be more open. Few opponents, though, find that defending against Spain’s playing style works to their advantage once they are out on the same pitch as Xavi, Iniesta and the rest of them. Moreover, his French team-mates are unlikely to thank the former Arsenal star for revealing that he has been more impressed with Germany so far.
If France triumph against their Iberian neighbours then Nasri and his countrymen might well wind up facing them in Kiev on Sunday week because if Spain can be beaten then having to overcome Portugal in the semis looks the less daunting task. If Blanc can’t restore his squad’s sense of unity tonight, pick the correct side and ensure they play to the limit of their potential then he and his players will surely be shown up and the manager just might find himself in the market for a good club job.