Lithuania surprisingly boast a five point advantage over the French in UEFA World Cup qualifying Group 7 and will be looking to maintain their grip on a top-two spot on Saturday evening.
Although Lithuania have played a game more in their World Cup qualifying campaign than France, few would have gambled that the former Soviet bloc country would boast a lead of les Bleus at this embryonic stage of the campaign. But it was unthinkable, even after France’s Euro 2008 collapse, that Lithuania would boast a five point cushion over their French counterparts.
Yet, this is the healthy position that Jose Couceiro, head coach of Lithuania since mid-August 2008, finds his side in as they approach a crucial double-header against Raymond Domenech’s outfit. An astonishing 3-0 success over Romania away from home set the tone and was quickly followed by a 2-0 win over Austria. A month later, a 3-0 defeat at the hands of Serbia was unconvincingly remedied by a narrow win over the Faroe Islands.
Their Portuguese coach may have stated that France start this encounter as favourites, but Lithuania have given themselves a genuine chance of reaching South Africa in little over a year’s time. He has certainly set that bar high for his team.
When asked by France Football of his objectives for these two encounters, he replied positively, “To win more points than France. Obviously, it would be ideal to win both matches but two draws would satisfy me too.”
This optimism is tempered by realism, though. “Although we are ahead of France in the table, they are favourites,” he affirmed. “They need six points. Anything else and they are in serious trouble. The first match in Kaunas will be important. However, even if we are a challenger, we are not the greatest threat to them. Serbia have one more match to play against France.”
Lithuania are currently training in Germany because conditions in Kaunas are so poor. Couceiro reportedly showed journalists pictures of a snow-caked Lithuanian city and explained that many of his players are lacking match practice due to the conditions in the Baltic state. “At the moment, the stadium in Kaunas is only good for ice football,” he joked.
But, with several of his players lacking in sharpness, and key man Andrius Velicka frozen out (pardon the pun) at Glasgow Rangers, the former Portugal Under-21 boss has his share of worries.
Lithuania’s healthy position in World Cup qualifying comes at a time when football in the country is in turmoil. FBK Kaunas and Klaipeda Atlantas have both recently withdrawn from the national top flight, dropping down to the second tier, leaving a championship of just eight teams.
On The Edge
Compared to French head coach, Raymond Domenech, Couceiro’s pains will seem minor. France were expected to stroll comfortably to the South African jamboree but have made heavy weather of their qualifying group thus far. No plane tickets to the southern tip of Africa will have yet been booked by the team as they trail both Serbia and Saturday’s hosts Lithuania by a significant five point margin.
Of course, France have a game in hand and two victories over their eastern European opponents would certainly give their outlook a far sunnier tint. However, by no means can they be relied upon to snatch maximum points from the forthcoming games.
Domenech’s men have travelled shambolically in the campaign to date and are somewhat fortunate to have such a strong shot at qualification. The 3-1 loss to Austria in Vienna to open the campaign far exceeded the depths of a miserable Euro 2008 and, although les Bleus recovered with a 2-1 win over Serbia in France a few days later, they were nearly handed a knock-out blow by Romania.
Two early goals from the hosts in Constanta had France staring down the very real prospect of elimination, however, a first half strike from Franck Ribery and a second half screamer from Yoann Gourcuff just about salvaged their pride.
Tunisia have since been seen off, but France’s other friendly matches have not gone in such an encouraging manner, with Uruguay holding les Bleus to a 0-0 draw and Argentina defeating them 2-0.
Things have not gone particularly well on the training ground, either. Striker after striker appears to have been afflicted with injury this week. Nicolas Anelka did not even join the squad due to a toe problem while Jimmy Briand suffered a serious knee injury in training on Thursday. In addition, Andre-Pierre Gignac, one of several international rookies in a frightfully green looking squad, is rated as a doubt for Saturday’s match.
Already Domenech has been searching for excuses in case of any possible shock. The pitch has been cited as a problem already and he has complained of being “a striker and a half short” – and that was before Jimmy Briand’s injury.
Confidence back home is not high. A recent poll showed that less than 50 per cent of the French population believe that France will miss out on qualification to the World Cup while Patrice Evra recently launch an attack on the nation’s pessimistic and overly-critical fans.
France certainly do not approach this match with their usual confidence and swagger. Any slip in the icy climes of Kaunas could spell the end of their summer 2010 dreams.
WON 3-1 (N) Andorra (Friendly, February 11)
DREW 1-1 (N) Poland (Friendly, February 9)
DREW 1-1 (A) Estonia (Mayors Cup, November 22)
DREW 0-0 (N) Moldova (Mayors Cup, November 19)
WON 1-0 (H) Faroe Islands (World Cup qualifying, October 15)
LOST 0-2 (H) Argentina (Friendly, February 11)
DREW 0-0 (H) Uruguay (Friendly, November 19)
WON 3-1 (H) Tunisia (Friendly, October 14)
DREW 2-2 (A) Romania (World Cup qualifying, October 11)
WON 2-1 (H) Serbia (World Cup qualifying, September 10)
Sampdoria star Marius Stankevicius, one of Lithuania’s key players, has been forced to withdraw from the squad due to injury. A foot injury will keep him out for approximately a month. Linas Pilibaitis is suspended.
Meanwhile, a handful of the Lithuania squad will be short of match practice as the domestic league has yet to begin. Rangers striker Andrius Velicka has barely been selected for his club side recently and is also desperately short of match sharpness, a fact his coach would lament in his aforementioned interview with France Football.
Probable Starting XI: Karcemarskas; Dedura, Alunderis, Klimavicius, Zelmikas; Semberas, Zaliukas, D. Cesnauskis; Mikoliunas; Savenas; Danilevicius
Injuries will certainly play their part in the team selection of Raymond Domenech. The French selector has already bemoaned the number of problems that he has suffered in attack. Definitely out are Nicolas Anelka and Jimmy Briand, who suffered knee ligament damage in training, while Andre-Pierre Gignac is doubtful. Sidney Govou (Achilles) could not even be considered for the squad.
The midfield and the rearguard are a little healthier. Jean-Alain Boumsong would generally be considered for a starting berth but he has not made the trip due to injury.
Domenech’s squad is immensely raw at international level. Guillaume Hoarau, Gignac, Loic Remy, Adil Rami and Cedric Carrasso, who are all in the 24-man party, have never played at such a level previously. In addition, there are a number of players with only a handful of games under their belts.
Probable Starting XI: Mandanda; Sagna, Evra, Squillaci, Gallas; L.Diarra, Toulalan; Ribery, Henry, Gourcuff; Benzema
PLAYERS TO WATCH
CSKA Moscow man Deividas Semberas is likely to be the most experienced of Lithuania’s starting players, and he will occupy one of the key roles in the side – playing in the engine room of the team. A tenacious player that is largely defensively focussed in the centre of the park, the 30-year-old former Dinamo Moscow man will have a great deal of responsibility on his shoulders as he will be charged with containing the impressive offensive line that France will boast running from deep. Only if he is successful will the Lithuanians stand a chance.
Undoubtedly the key man in a very inexperienced side is Thierry Henry. France’s record goal scorer will need to use all his experience in what is sure to be a very trying game for les Bleus. Conditions will not necessarily suit the French but Henry has shown in the past he is a man for any occasion and is widely reckoned to be getting back to somewhere near his best with Barcelona at present. Raymond Domenech would be delighted if ‘Titi’ could add to his tally of 48 international strikes.
Several seasons ago, France would have treated this match like a cakewalk. The French are very much a side in the midst of a revolution and they cannot afford to take much longer to get things right. On a difficult pitch, it will not be easy to break the home ranks down. Les Bleus’ away form is not great, though, and they cannot be trusted to keep a clean sheet. Domenech’s men are walking along a narrow ledge.
Lithuania 1-2 France
Robin Bairner, Goal.com