With the 2014 finals just around the corner, Goal is running a series looking at every major nation and arguing the case for each winning the cup. Here we assess FranceCOMMENT
By Robin Bairner
How quickly things can change in international football. Last November, following a 2-0 playoff defeat in Ukraine, the odds were against France even travelling to Brazil this summer, yet Didier Deschamps’ side turned the tie around with a 3-0 success in Paris, from which they built a sequence of results that has them tipped as dark horses for the competition.
Key to the shift in mood in Les Bleus’ camp has been an apparent transformation of the team’s spirit. That night in Paris against Ukraine acted as an excretory event for the national team, who had been damaged almost beyond repair following dressing room revolt dating back almost a decade.
Much of the egotism associated with the France side has been expunged by Deschamps, whose decision to leave Manchester City’s Samir Nasri from the World Cup squad was greeted with disbelief in England but some relief at home.
Amidst a string of expletives on Twitter delivered by his girlfriend, the playmaker’s dreams of lifting the game’s most coveted trophy were obliterated for another four years, but equally this outburst, though not delivered by the player himself, added weight to the case of the coach, whose decision was likely based on reasons away from the field.
"The aim was to build the best squad, not necessarily to take the top 23 French players," the former Juventus coach dryly replied in his press conference as the decision was announced.
"Samir said himself he couldn't stand to be a substitute. This is true and this is something we feel among the squad. It's the reason why he has not been selected."
Indeed, in previous competitions the importance of the whole has often been overlooked in favour of the individual. Not so by Deschamps, who finally seems to have forged a team of togetherness.
Of course, there is no shortage of quality in France’s ranks, with each area of the field boasting players of strength.
A back problem, however, has ruled out Ballon d'Or nominee Franck Ribery, but France have a strong artillery regardless, with promising youngster Antoine Griezmann approaching this competition seeking to ignite his career in a similar fashion to the Bayern Munich player, who made his breakthrough at the 2006 World Cup, also as a 23-year-old.
If the strikers seem to complement each other nicely, the midfield also dovetails in a pleasing manner. Paul Pogba, having only just turned 21, is already showing the power and ball recuperation skills that have long seen him touted as a world-class talent, while Paris Saint-Germain’s Yohan Cabaye adds class on the ball as club-mate Blaise Matuidi brings apparently limitless energy.
Perhaps one weakness France may have is a lack of experience in the defence, where Laurent Koscielny and Mamadou Sakho are set to start in the centre, despite a combined tally of fewer than 35 caps. The Liverpool centre-back is often cited as a potential fallible link, though his performances for the national side have typically been more assured than at club level, and it was his double that inspired France to victory over Ukraine – an evening that seems to have inspired the Parisian.
In goal, meanwhile, will be Hugo Lloris, one of the most accomplished sweeper-keepers in the modern-day game. Though controversy remains over his status as captain, even in goal he successfully embodies the dynamic and athletic nature of the squad.
Concerns may have been expressed about the lack of depth in the squad, though a more correct criticism would be a dearth of international experience beyond the starting pool. Deschamps, however, has opted for youthful vibrancy in his squad, of which eight are aged 24 or under.
These young guns have all proven to be exceptional able at club level, with the likes of Raphael Varane, Eliaquim Mangala and Antoine Griezmann having shone with Real Madrid, Porto and Sociedad respectively.
In the searing heat and humidity of Brazil, Deschamps may well be glad of their energy, though it will be their attitude and spirit – words not easily associated with the France side – that will be crucial for Les Bleus, whose draw against Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador offers a welcoming possibility of progression.
From there, Bosnia and Herzegovina or Nigeria would likely wait, and against lower-ranked opposition France would be favourites to move to the quarter-finals, from which stage they would see anything as being possible.
Make no mistake, this France team may not be bristling with the stars of old, but it may not need to if it is to enjoy a fruitful trip to Brazil this summer.
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