Gael Clichy Makes Convincing Case to Start for France at Euro 2012
The members of that glorious Arsenal side that swept through the 2003-04 English Premier League season unbeaten have begun to filter into retirement one by one, beginning that heart-clenching chore of hanging up their boots for the last time (save for some celebrity game appearances.)
Sol Campbell, who had started in central defense for that historic outfit, became the latest to do so Wednesday, calling an end to his professional career after being out of football since the end of last season.
So many of those stalwarts who made that pursuit of perfection so thoroughly enjoyable to watch have faded from the fore.
But some remain in football, now scattered throughout Europe in the inevitable diaspora that arises after seasons. Cesc Fabregas and Gael Clichy were the last two remaining members of the Invincibles; now none remain.
At the time, Clichy was another of the youthful team members steeped in talent who looked likely to go on and enjoy a prosperous career. Most, like Clichy, have since gone on to become (well, maybe not in David Bentley's case) excellent campaigners—just not for Arsenal anymore.
Clichy was all of 18 years old during that 2003-04 season. He did get a winner's medal thanks to his 12 league appearances (the minimum to receive a medal is 12) and 22 in all competitions.
Signed from Cannes for just £250,000 before the season, the Toulouse-born speedster primarily served as the backup to starting left-back Ashley Cole and was on the bench for that fateful May match against Leicester City that saw Arsenal crowned champions.
Clichy has often seen his path to first-team football—for both club and country—blocked by players who were older and deemed to be superior.
At Arsenal, it was Cole who remained the first-choice back until his petulant departure in 2006.
For France, it has always been Patrice Evra, who served as the team captain in the 2010 World Cup and nearly always enjoyed a more favorable standing in former manager Raymond Domenech's eyes. (Before the World Cup torpor, mind you.)
One of Domenech's last decisions before South Africa was to bestow the team captaincy to Evra.
But when Clichy has gotten to play first-team football, he has thrived. Blessed with searing pace, the left-back enjoyed a sensational season for Arsenal in 2007-08, his second as the first choice at the defensive position.
He earned a name for himself by using his quickness to his advantage in defense on the flanks, not to mention his ability to provide help in attacking on the wing. It was little wonder that Clichy earned a place in the Professional Footballers' Association (PFA) 2008 Team of the Year. It truly was an excellent season from the then-22-year-old.
Yet after hitting that personal high,—Clichy got his first call-up for France as a result of his 2008 form—the left-back seemed to stagnate just as he was entering his prime.
Clichy had missed out on traveling to Euro 2008 by a hair's breadth, but that seemed more a result of Domenech counting on the aging rear guard of Les Bleus to once more lead them to glory in Austria and Switzerland as they'd almost done in Germany back in 2006.
Clichy deserved to go to that tournament, but it seemed certain that it wouldn't be long before he'd be going to the major competitions. He was named to the 2010 World Cup squad and earned a start in France's final group stage match against South Africa after the well-publicized training moratorium had cost Evra his spot.
Never seen as a scoring threat from the left-back position (he lodged his first-ever shot on target in nine Premier League seasons April 30 during City's match against Manchester United), Clichy has nonetheless enjoyed somewhat of a mini-revival while with City.
But that's not to say he wasn't good before this season.
He provided a vital assist to Karim Benzema back in September 2010 to open the scoring for France against Bosnia-Herzegovina in the country's second European qualifying match. Clichy ended up making four appearances during the qualifying campaign and will presumably head to Poland and Ukraine this summer.
The question now becomes, will he start?
With the April 30 match and the entire season as precedent, I believe he should. Clichy came quite close to an impeccable performance against the Red Devils during City's 1-0 victory, which vaulted the sky-blue side past their less noisy neighbors and into first place in the league standings on goal difference. (They have an eight-goal advantage.)
Clichy was resolute in his defending at the Etihad and provided some vital clearances in response to United's attacks, which, while rare, were not entirely without venom.
He was calculated in getting forward, and while a Roberto Mancini-led team will never go all out in attack during a game with such serious ramifications, Clichy must have made his manager proud with his responsible approach.
France's boss, Laurent Blanc, surely had to have had both his eyes fixed on that match,—after all, his likely first two choices at the left-back position were playing—and one would think he came away with a glowing impression of Clichy.
Eric Abidal had been the preferred option at left-back (he'd started France's last two matches at the position), although Evra had started at left-back in France's final European qualifier against Bosnia-Herzegovina back in October 2011.
Unfortunately, Abidal will miss this summer's tournament after receiving a liver transplant last month. He had undergone surgery to remove a tumor in his liver in 2011.
He will be sorely missed and should be wished a speedy recovery. For now, it remains to be seen what Blanc will decide to do with his first-team squad in Poland and Ukraine.
After Monday, Clichy may have seen his stock rise slightly higher than his Manchester rival.
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