Kick-off: Saturday, September 5, 2009 21:00 CET
Stade de France, Paris
Stade de France, Paris
Eyebrows were raised last summer when Raymond Domenech was given a stay of execution by the Federation de Francaise Football after a truly woeful Euro 2008 campaign. Although defeats against the Netherlands and Italy were the most eye-catching results, the tone was set with an utterly abject scoreless draw with Romania, in which les Bleus were devoid of any ambition to win a game surely central to their hopes of progression.
Having been presented with yet another life, the controversial French coach was again left hanging by a thread after a poor start to the World Cup qualifying campaign, which genuinely jeopardised the 1998 champions’ chances of reaching South Africa. Again the men in blue faced Romania, this time coming off the back of a 3-1 loss in Austria and a 2-1 win over Serbia. Even with three points in the bank, going 2-0 down inside the first quarter-of-an-hour against their opponents constituted something of a disaster for Domenech & Co.
Talisman Franck Ribery and rising star Yoann Gourcuff would ultimately level proceedings for les Bleus, but this result was simply a continuation of France’s wholly unremarkable form, which has not abated in the months since.
Indeed, pressure has built around the team from the stands, where the fans have grown restless quickly, mercilessly booing their men in friendly defeats against Argentina and Nigeria, while a 1-0 victory over Turkey in June failed to paper over cracks in the side.
These friendlies have served as a stage for France to showcase their current brand of relative mediocrity, which is made all the more frustrating due to the tools at Domenech’s disposal.
The coach has argued that results are coming, and to an extent he does have a point – since the difficult period in autumn 2008, France have stabilised and are comfortably second in Group 7 – but there are few who would expect a team laden with offensive talents such as Karim Benzema, Franck Ribery, Yoann Gourcuff and Andre-Pierre Gignac to only dispatch a feisty Faroese side 1-0, even away from home in difficult conditions.
Much is on the line on Saturday, then. Even a draw would badly hamper France’s chance of eradicating and overhauling Serbia’s five point advantage at the summit of the pool, though Wednesday’s match in Belgrade is arguably an even more vital fixture in that regard.
All But Out
France’s fall from grace over a period of around 15 months has not been quite as spectacular as Romania’s.
The Tricolorii tentatively approached the European Championships in Austria and Switzerland as a team touted to cause a surprise, having topped their qualifying group ahead of the Netherlands. But they were left gasping for Alpine air as the pressure seemingly got to them. There were no problems in their opening draw with France, though their lack of ambition was evident, and they seemed primed to eliminate Italy in their second match, only for Adrian Mutu to see his spot-kick saved by Gianluigi Buffon.
Since Buffon’s heroics for the Italians, it has been all downhill for Romania, who were knocked out of the championships by the Netherlands by virtue of a 2-0 loss, before starting their World Cup qualifying campaign in abject form, embarrassed 3-0 at home by a Lithuanian team of no real pedigree.
A massively unconvincing 1-0 win over the Faroe Islands followed, but things seemed to improve against France in Constanta, where they took a 2-0 lead only to surrender their advantage. Since then, defeats against Serbia (home, 3-1) and Austria (away, 2-1) have followed, with the sole success coming against Lithuania in the form of a 1-0 away success.
That victory against the Lithuanians was masterminded by new coach Razvan Lucescu, son of UEFA Cup winning coach Mircea Lucescu, who, of course, guided Shakhtar Donetsk to success on the continent last season.
His perfect start to the job continued with a narrow 1-0 friendly victory against Hungry, and if the 40-year-old can somehow plot success in Paris, Romania will remain in with the most outside of chances of qualifying for the World Cup.
If the Tricolorii are to maintain any hope of playing in South Africa next summer, it is vital they win on Saturday, reducing the gap to France to three points with as many games left. Even that would be a long shot, but a shot nevertheless.
WON 1-0 (A) Faroe Islands (World Cup qualifying, August 12)
WON 1-0 (H) Turkey (Friendly, June 5)
LOST 1-0 (H) Nigeria (Friendly, June 2)
WON 1-0 (H) Lithuania (World Cup qualifying, April 1)
WON 1-0 (A) Lithuania (World Cup qualifying, March 28)
WON 1-0 (A) Hungary (Friendly, August 12)
WON 1-0 (A) Lithuania (World Cup qualifying, June 6)
LOST 2-1 (A) Austria (World Cup qualifying, April 1)
LOST 2-3 (H) Serbia (World Cup qualifying, March 28)
LOST 1-2 (H) Croatia (Friendly, February 11)
Goalkeeper Hugo Lloris received a bump in training on Wednesday from Abou Diaby but is fully expected to participate on Saturday. Unusually, there have been no other real dramas, though les Bleus are still short of Samir Nasri, Jimmy Briand and Sidney Govou, who has just returned to training with club side Olympique Lyonnais.
Debate has raged in the French media as to how the unpredictable Domenech is likely to align his squad. The general consensus appears to be that Gignac will lead the line supported by an attacking trio of Thierry Henry, Yoann Gourcuff and Franck Ribery. Jeremy Toulalan and Lassana Diarra are virtual certainties to start in the anchoring midfield roles, while William Gallas and Julien Escude are the anticipated central defensive duo.
Probable Starting XI: Lloris; Sagna, Gallas, Escude, Evra; L. Diarra, Toulalan; Ribery, Gourcuff, Henry; Gignac
The big news in the Romanian camp is the withdrawal of Mutu, who will also be absent when they make their way to Bucharest in midweek, where they will face Austria.
In the hitman’s stead, Gigel Bucur of Champions League qualifiers Timisoara has been called, however, he boasts a distinctly unremarkable record at international level, having found the net only twice.
Vastly experienced Roma goalkeeper Bogdan Lobont is not involved in the squad in any form.
Probably Starting XI: Coman; Mafte, Radoi, Chivu, Rat; Mara, Apostol, Ghioane, Nicu; Surdu, Marica
PLAYERS TO WATCH
While many players have contributed sporadically to France’s qualification campaign, there has only been one man who has been truly outstanding: Franck Ribery. Les Bleus will need the brilliant Bayern Munich man to be at his most creative if they are to break down an obstinate Romanian defence. He struck the goal that got Domenech’s men back on track in the reverse fixture, and also has two match winning goals against Lithuania in this qualification process. He is vital to the hopes of the nation.
Lacking a top class forward could be some problem for Lucescu, who has already underlined his intention to win this game. It is likely that Romania will simply seek to frustrate the French and counterattack, meaning that a solid rearguard is essential. Left-back Razvan Rat will be key in their defensive unit, providing stability and experience at the back, as well as platform with which to launch speedy attacks. Having won the UEFA Cup with Shakhtar Donetsk last season, he has proved his ability to play at the top level.
France have the happy habit of doing just enough to get the job done, and they certainly start this match as favourites. Romania do boast plenty of experience and will doubtless defend with courage and organisation, but les Bleus have plenty of attacking options, and even if they do misfire for 88 or 89 minutes, the one or two moments that they do click should prove decisive.
France 1-0 Romania
Robin Bairner, Goal.com