France national soccer team -- Photo Courtesy: Getty Images
Laurent Blanc takes France into Euro 2012 on a 20-game unbeaten run, which includes victories over Germany, England and Brazil. But the French national team coach is still downplaying his team's chances. France has not won a tournament finals match since the 2006 World Cup semifinal (it was winless at Euro 2008 and at the 2010 World Cup), and Blanc is quick to point out that France (ranked 16th) is currently listed nine spots lower than its first opponent, England (seventh), in the FIFA world rankings.
Blanc still has some selection headaches to solve, including at left back, where Gael Clichy impressed in the win over Serbia just days after Patrice Evra floundered against Iceland. Holding midfielder Yann M'Vila also has an ankle sprain that will rule him out of the first game, and Alou Diarra is expected to replace him.
But this is a very different side than the one that imploded under Raymond Domenech in South Africa. Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is now captain, but Philippe Mexes, M'Vila and Karim Benzema -- who form the team's new spine -- missed the Knysna nightmare and are therefore untainted by the failures of the past. The same cannot be said of Franck Ribery, who is desperate to win back the love of the French public. After three years without a goal, Ribery scored twice in the last two friendlies. If he can start to replicate some of his Bayern Munich form in a France uniform, then Les Bleus could emerge as a dark horse.
Three Key Players
F Karim Benzema
The great hope of French football had a wretched debut tournament at Euro 2008, when he was accused, along with Samir Nasri, of disrespecting older players and not passing enough to Thierry Henry. He was passed over for the 2010 World Cup, but has become France's main striker under Blanc, scoring five goals in 17 games, including the winner against Brazil. Perhaps more significantly, he just completed the most prolific season of his career, scoring 32 goals for Real Madrid, and claims to have become a better striker under the tutelage of coach Jose Mourinho. If that's the case, France could reap the benefits.
M Samir Nasri
Until he was part of Manchester City's Premier League title-winning side last month, Nasri had won just a single career trophy: the 2004 Under-17 European Championship, when he scored the winner in the final. Nasri is part of "la génération '87" named after a group of players born in 1987 that are now reaching their peak years for the senior team. That group includes Benzema, Hatem Ben Arfa, Jeremy Menez and Blaise Matuidi, all of whom played in 2004 and are on the Euro 2012 squad. As a playmaker, Nasri has the responsibility to set the tempo of France's attacking game and make things happen. It's a role he has long coveted -- and this is his big chance to prove he deserves it.
M Yann M'Vila
The holding midfielder is set for a big-money move after the tournament, and his club, Rennes, might want to raise the price if he has a few good games this month. M'Vila was lucky to miss out on the World Cup -- he was pick number 24, Raymond Domenech told SI.com -- and has since made the holding midfield berth his own under Blanc. Still only 21, he has become a crucial player for France and the way it plays, breaking up opponents' play and generating attacks from the base of midfield with his sharp passing. He has been ruled out of France's opener with England with an ankle sprain and will be a big loss. Still, he is expected to return for game two against Ukraine.
Can France get over Knysna 2010?
Nine players on this squad were in South Africa, but the mood is very different than in 2010. Blanc has worked hard with his players to win back support from a French public that vehemently rejected Les Bleus after their strike action at the World Cup. That's why it seemed strange for Blanc to recall Yoann Gourcuff, one of the players who reportedly divided the camp in 2010, into his long list for Euro 2012.
Gourcuff did not make the cut, however, and France travels to Ukraine without a major tournament match win since 2006. The 20-match unbeaten run has won back some favor from the fans, but there is a sense that the team remains on probation until Euro runs its course.
What next for Laurent Blanc?
The France coach has always said he will not have a long career on the bench, unlike his former bosses Guy Roux (44 years at Auxerre) and Sir Alex Ferguson (26 years at Manchester United). His buildup to Euro 2012 has been overshadowed by a contract standoff with Noel Le Graet, the French football federation president. Conscious that his predecessors "locked in" Domenech to a four-year deal after the 2006 World Cup, Le Graet has refused Blanc's pre-tournament request for a contract extension, saying only that it depends on how France fares in Euro 2012. The pair also clashed over the size of Blanc's backroom staff and the location of France's tournament base (Blanc wanted to be in Ukraine, Le Graet chose Poland). Blanc is a reported target of Chelsea owner Roman Abramovich, and the danger for Le Graet is that if France does well, Blanc could be more likely to leave.
Where are the team leaders?
Every successful France team of the past has had at least one personality who inspired the rest of the team. In 1984 it was Michel Platini, in 1998, Didier Deschamps and Marcel Desailly, and in 2006, Zinedine Zidane and Claude Makelele. The question about the current side is not one of talent, but rather whether a leader exists who can organize the team and bind the group together. The fact that Blanc spent 18 months auditioning for the captaincy before handing it to Lloris, the goalkeeper, proves that there is no obvious candidate for the role. Will someone step up?
France's best performance in qualifying came in Bosnia and Herzegovina, when Blanc fielded a three-man midfield with M'Vila just behind Diarra and Abou Diaby. Diarra then lost his form, and his place in the side (though he is back now) while Diaby has been injured all season. Blanc has since switched to a 4-2-3-1 system with Yohan Cabaye alongside M'Vila in midfield. With Ribery and Nasri certain to start in the attacking trident behind Benzema, the final spot on the right is between Arfa, Mathieu Valbuena and Menez.
There are some concerns about defense, where Blanc has kept faith in the center back pairing of Mexes and Adil Rami despite the excellent form of Laurent Koscielny. But with Raphael Varane deemed too young and Mamadou Sakho slipping out of favor at PSG, this current crop seems a long way from the likes of Blanc, Desailly, Lilian Thuram and William Gallas from previous eras.