By Robin Bairner in Paris
If victory over Ukraine in the World Cup play-off was a cathartic even for the national team of France, then Wednesday night’s powerful display against the Netherlands in a 2-0 win was the confirmation.
International friendlies at Stade de France have often been uninspiring fares in recent years, but backed by a boisterous home crowd les Bleus played with flair and power against opponents dramatically below par.
Bayern Munich’s two aces, Franck Ribery and Arjen Robben were both absent from the starting XI, depriving the French of their best player for an hour until he was called from the bench with the game already won, and the Dutch of arguably theirs, but it was the hosts who coped more impressively.
Karim Benzema, in particular, showed a willingness to come to the fore. The Real Madrid striker, who has not always ingratiated himself to the France support due to some lacklustre showings, played a leading role in the recovery against Ukraine and spearheaded the effort once more against the Dutch.
After threatening in the early stages with an effort cleared off the line following smart play by debutant Antoine Griezmann and a shot justly disallowed for offside, he scored a magnificent opening goal by smashing a first-time shot into the net following a lofted pass by Blaise Matuidi.
Still a player who remarkably flies rather under the radar, the Paris Saint-Germain midfielder enhanced his reputation by showcasing his increased prowess in the box with a remarkably gymnastic finish after a flowing move that typified Didier Deschamps’ side at their best.
Netherlands, however, struggled to rely on their star men. Robin van Persie played the first period like a player who was doubtful to make the match through illness, while Wesley Sneijder was anonymous for long spells.
What moments of incision the guests enjoyed were fleeting as the home defence largely coped comfortably. Indeed, it was telling that Ron Vlaar had Oranje’s best chance, shooting over after Hugo Lloris had blocked a Van Persie volley – the Manchester United’s man only real moment of quality all evening.
And neither did the Dutch solve their goalkeeping conundrum. Coach Louis van Gaal has wanted for consistency in this role for many months, and in the form of Jasper Clillessen he found only nerves. Illness to Michael Vorm saw the Swansea shot-stopper drop out along with Rafael van der Vaart, and the Ajax No.1 proved an uncertain replacement.
Perhaps the greatest bright spot for the visitors was Quincy Promes, the 22-year-old Twente winger who proved their most rousing threat.
Too much store, of course, should not be placed in these glorified training exercises, yet there is little doubt of the growing optimism building around the France national team. Wednesday’s result, and crucially performance, will only have enhanced that feeling.
For the Netherlands, whose first visit to Stade de France was not one that they will especially wish to remember, the depth of their squad must be a concern ahead of Brazil in the summer as they were comprehensively beaten in this encounter.