Without his two first choice centre-backs, Laurent Blanc will look to the midfield to provide stability for his side in Tirana
By Robin Bairner | French Football Editor
There’s a significant weight of expectation on France ahead of their Friday evening Euro 2012 qualifier with Albania. Narrowly leading Group D, Laurent Blanc’s men are by no means assigned a place in the finals of the competition next summer, but with Belarus their closest challengers, it is anticipated that they will have the strength to earn first spot and the automatic passage to Poland and Ukraine that comes with it.
Tirana, however, will be no stroll for the French. Not only are Albania unbeaten in their capital during this qualifying campaign, inflicting Belarus’ only defeat onto them to date, les Bleus go into this encounter shorn of first choice defensive pairing Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami, who have proven reliable bricks in France’s improving defensive wall.
Instead, it has been widely suggested that Eric Abidal and Younes Kaboul will take responsibility in the heart of the defence. Blanc was shrewd enough to start with the pair in last month’s 1-1 draw with Chile, yet inevitably there was some degree of miscommunication between the duo, who will at least have the in-form Hugo Lloris behind them for protection.
The Marseille midfielder is well known for his aerial power at set pieces, having been a valuable weapon in this regard for the Bordeaux of Blanc who were crowned French champions in 2009.
Much of the quality in Blanc’s panel lies going forward. Florent Malouda, Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema are liable to make up France’s offensive line, and with the red-hot Kevin Gameiro on the bench, there is plenty to suggest that they are capable of scoring goals.
Barcelona showed during their Monday night victory over Villarreal in La Liga that it’s possible to win even with the most makeshift of defences if possession is used wisely, and France should learn from that incredible display.
In the defensive sector, the coach is right with his concerns, particularly in the air, where Albania are a strong outfit and where les Bleus have toiled for several years now.
“They like to battle in the air; they have a few large players,” the former Barcelona centre-back, who played in France’s only previous visit to Tirana (a 1-0 win), considered in the pre-match press conference.
For this reason, Alou Diarra is set to be involved from the outset. Overlooked against Chile, where the more creative Marvin Martin was employed in the heart of the side, the Marseille midfielder is well known for his aerial power at set pieces, having been a valuable weapon in this regard for the Bordeaux of Blanc who were crowned French champions in 2009.
Experience and leadership qualities are other assets the 30-year-old will bring to a squad that has a strong mix of fresh-faced youth and gnarled know-how, yet it is primarily for his physical attributes that the powerful holding midfielder is involved.
Presence | Diarra is included partly because of his strength in the air
Although Diarra has a crucial role to play in sweeping up problems in front of the back four, it will be the incision of France’s attacking that makes-or-breaks matters for Blanc’s men on Friday. For all their potential fallibilities in the back four, les Bleus must trust their offensive players to be able to circulate the ball swiftly and smartly enough to break down the home defence.
While a performance of the Catalans’ class simply cannot be expected of les Bleus, something of a blueprint has been set by Pep Guardiola’s men, and if France do pick up three points in Tirana, they’ll have taken a significant step towards the final stages of the European Championship.
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