Wednesday, April 21, 2010

World Cup Preview Group A: France, Les Bleus Chances Limited By Domenech

Despite qualifying thanks to a blatant Thierry Henry handball against Ireland in the World Cup Playoff, France will head to South Africa 2010 as one of the few nations with a real chance of coming home as winners.

Having been handed an easy group in qualifying—Austria, Lithuania, Faroe Islands, Romania, and Serbia—France struggled, and eventually finished second to surprise winners Serbia.
Never the most popular man in France, Raymond Domenech's stock plummeted to such an extent, that many newspapers called for his head on the eve of the playoff. FIFA then stepped in and made sure that Les Bleus were seeded, drawing Ireland.
The manner of France's win over the Irish caused world wide headlines, and leading French magazines like Equipe ran polls asking if Ireland deserved a replay. To much surprise, the average man on the streets of France voted "yes." To Giovani Trappatoni's dismay, no replay was ever awarded, but the seeds of doubt in Domenech had grown full bloom, and now there was a public outcry for him to be replaced for leading the team to such ignominy.
To say that Domenech is hated is something of an understatement.
With the FFF announcing that he will be replaced immediately after the competition, Domenech has one final chance to redeem himself, and he is armed with an incredibly talented squad.
The draw for the World Cup group stages was kind to Les Bleus. Paired with home nation South Africa, Uruguay, and Mexico, there is a very negotiable route to the last 16 awaiting them.
Kindly, they take on Uruguay first on the opening day of the tournament, before the expected winners showdown with Mexico six days later on June 17. Their last fixture sees them face hosts South Africa on June 22 in Bloemfontein, in one of the highest stadiums in the world. The altitude could become a real factor.
The main problem facing France will be the travelling. France's first game is in Cape Town's Green Point Stadium, but they will have to travel a massive 1,750km to Polokwane for the Mexico fixture, while El Tri will only have to travel 350km.
It is minor details such as these that could have a major say on who progresses to the next round, especially as Mexico have the easier opening fixture.
Expect both favourites to play for full points in the usually cagey first matches, as they will probably look at the game against each other as being the one to draw, before France go for broke against Bafana Bafana in the final game.
The squad available to Domenech is ridiculously talented. It is therefore most unfortunate for the many fans of French football that he never seems to pick his strongest team.
Mathieu Flamini only managed one minute's worth of play during the whole two years of qualifying, Karim Benzema found himself on the bench in the crunch deciders against Ireland, and Franck Ribery was only picked for six games. The Bayern star was injured for part of the campaign, but often found himself on the bench under the hardest manager to figure out in world football.
Importantly, the whole team is based around Thierry Henry. The ex-Arsenal striker played in all 11 games and scored four goals. However, following the famous "Hand of Henry" incident against the Irish, his form has dipped dramatically for both club and country.
Recently his club manager at Barcelona, Pep Guardiola, chose to play a defender, Daniel Alves, up front with Lionel Messi against Real Madrid, Los Cules' biggest fixture of the season. Such a statement means that the striker has no future left at Camp Nou, and that his best days are far behind him.
Whether Domenech retains faith in Henry remains to be seen, but he does have other options available, namely Benzema, Gignac, Anelka, or even David Trezeguet.
Defensively, France have the players, but they do not have the coach.
They are armed with the likes of Bacari Sagna, Patrice Evra, Eric Abidal, and William Gallas, but all too often they appear to have only met in the tunnel on the way out to the match. Combine these with the superb Hugo Lloris, and France, on paper, have one of the best back-lines in the competition.
They have the right ingredients, but Domenech has yet to make the right recipe.
Strengths and Weaknesses
France possesses a midfield of supreme creative prowess. Yoann Gourcouff has improved immensely under Laurent Blanc at Bourdeaux, and is a player who can thread the ball through the eye of a needle. He is ably joined by Franck Ribery. The Bayern Munich left winger is a hugely talented player, and is constantly linked with moves to clubs like Manchester United, Real Madrid, and Barcelona. He is phenomenally quick over short distances, has a very low back-lift that makes it very hard for 'keepers to judge his shooting and has a fantastic range for passing.
Obviously France's main strengths are going forward. They have enough players to trouble any team, and it is just a matter of the manager getting everybody singing from the same hymn sheet.
The main weakness the team have is the manager. Raymond Domenech is erratic in his judgement, and can leave players out who seem to be playing out of their skins, and change his tactics at the drop of a hat when all seemed well in the first place.
It is precisely this reason why Les Bleus defence is so poor.
It would be a great World Cup if...
Make no mistake, France are real contenders to win in South Africa. They have a strong squad, great leaders on the pitch, big match experience, and the players to make an impact. The relative easiness of their group means they should easily stroll through to the next round.
It would be a disaster if...
France go out in the first round. The group looks easy, but France have to do some huge traveling, and have a match at high altitude to negotiate. Mexico will fancy their chances of winning the group, Uruguay will be no pushovers, and South Africa will be hoping for their fanatical home support to carry them through.
The group is the perfect set up to be a banana skin before we even factor in Raymond Domenech.
My Prediction for Les Bleus...
Predicting France is like eating sweets from a box of chocolates, you just never know what you're going to get.
For many players this is their last chance at international glory. For this reason alone, I feel that the elder statesmen of the squad, Henry, Gallas, maybe even Vieira, will take control away from Domenech.
If they can get over their egos and play the right players, France could get as far as the semifinals. If they rely on the manager, expect them to go out in the group stages.