Kick Off: Wednesday, March 2, 2010, 21:00 CET
Stade de France, Paris
France take to the field for the first time since qualifying for the World Cup when they meet Spain in Paris on Wednesday, with the dust only now starting to settle on the infamous ‘Hand of Henry’.
It was three and a half months ago when Thierry Henry controversially pulled down a long free kick into the Republic of Ireland’s box with his left arm before flicking the ball across the goalmouth for William Gallas to head home the simplest of chances, sending les Bleus to the World Cup in the most dubious of circumstances.
The whole qualification process was fraught from a French perspective, with a 3-1 defeat by Austria in Vienna setting the tone for a campaign torturous even by the standards of a team who generally fail to impress in such circumstances.
Now les Bleus are qualified for the World Cup, coach Raymond Domenech must focus on making a success of his team once they reach South Africa. It must be remembered that Aime Jacquet’s World Cup winning vintage of 1998 were roundly panned in the media before going on to lift the crown, and Domenech’s side bears similar hallmarks.
As several members of the technical and playing staff have emphasised, the World Cup starts here for France. Les Bleus are doing their utmost to blot out a qualifying campaign wrought with mediocrity, and a win on Wednesday would go a long way to doing just that.
Finding Their Feet
If France were uncertain qualifiers for the mundial, there could be little doubt about Spain’s passage through to the finals. Fresh from winning Euro2008 under Luis Aragones, Vicente del Bosque picked up the reins and continued carrying la Furia Roja forward.
On the whole, the Spaniards have been untouchable for three years. Since defeating England 1-0 in a friendly way back in February 2007, they have played 44 times, drawing three games and losing only once; a quite breathtaking statistic. Amongst these fixtures were ten World Cup qualifiers, all of which were won.
Such evidence only serves to strengthen the suggestion that the Iberian side are one of the outstanding favourites for the competition in South Africa, though their only defeat of the last three years did come in the Rainbow Nation, where they went down 2-0 to the USA in the Confederations Cup.
There are few signs of Del Bosque pulling any punches at the present time as he has named a virtually full strength squad to make the journey to Paris.
Historically Spain and France have been closesly matched on the football field, with 29 matches played between the two nations, 12 of which have been won by la Furia Roja and 11 of which claimed by les Bleus.
Spain have not won in Paris in over 60 years; their four previous successes on French soil have come in Bordeaux (4-0 in 1922), Colombes on the outskirts of the capital (5-1 in 1927 and 1949) and Lyon (3-1 in 1968). Wednesday’s encounter gives the Spanish the opportunity to remove a historical monkey from their back while building positively towards the World Cup in the process.
DREW 1-1 aet (h) Republic of Ireland (World Cup playoff, November 18)
WON 1-0 (a) Republic of Ireland (World Cup playoff, November 14)
WON 3-1 (h) Austria (World Cup qualifier, October 14)
WON 5-0 (h) Faroe Islands (World Cup qualifier, October 10)
DREW 1-1 (a) Serbia (World Cup qualifier, September 9)
WON 5-1 (a) Austria (Friendly, November 18)
WON 2-1 (h) Argentina (Friendly, November 14)
WON 5-2 (a) Bosnia (World Cup qualifier, October 14)
WON 2-1 (a) Armenia (World Cup qualifier, October 10)
WON 3-0 (h) Estonia (World Cup qualifier, September 9)
The list of injury headaches is great for les Bleus going into this game. Karim Benzema, William Gallas, Eric Abidal, Sebastien Squillaci and Andre-Pierre Gignac form part of an extensive list of absentees, which grew on Monday as Everton forward Louis Saha pulled out. Djibril Cisse of Panathinaikos was swiftly called as a replacement.
Franck Ribery has been convened but due to his recent return from a very lengthy injury problem he may well spend much of this game looking on.
France’s squad contains several inexperienced players, with goalkeeper Cedric Carrasso, defenders Adil Rami, Michael Ciani and Aly Cissokho, and midfielder Benoit Cheyrou all uncapped.
Probable Starting XI: Lloris; Sagna, Escude, Boumsong, Evra; L. Diarra, Toulalan; Govou, Gourcuff, Henry; Anelka
Vicente del Bosque has called forth an intimidating squad to Paris. While several members of France’s unit are untested at international level, each member of the Spain team has received at least one cap, with only Diego Lopez, Juan Mata, Jesus Navas and Alvaro Negredo having made less than ten international appearances.
Like France’s situation with Ribery, Spain may not use Fernando Torres fully.
The squad named by Del Bosque for this encounter is likely to be very much like the group who will travel to the World Cup.
Probable Starting XI: Casillas; Ramos, Pique, Puyol, Capdevila; Xavi, Alonso, Fabregas; Navas, Villa, Silva
PLAYERS TO WATCH
After helping Olympique Lyonnais stop Real Madrid a couple of weeks ago in the Champions League, Jean-Alain Boumsong will have a big role to play in Wednesday’s encounter. On his day he can be an ultra-reliable centre-back, but he is also prone to poor errors. If the good Boumsong shows up, he could go a long way to securing his place in the squad for the World Cup.
Jesus Navas has barely played for la Furia Roja previously due to his acute homesickness, though he seems to have overcome these problems sufficiently to travel to the World Cup. The daring winger has been in magnificent form for Sevilla in recent times and appears ready to make his third international appearance. Depending on Del Bosque’s tack, he may even make his first start.
With France very much in experimental mode and Spain seemingly taking this game more seriously, la Furia Roja will start as favourites. Typically friendlies involving Raymond Domenech’s side are low scoring affairs, though Vicente del Bosque’s unit have plenty of offensive talent at their disposal. Expect the guests to claim victory in this encounter.
France 0-2 Spain