France are currently preparing to face Ukraine in their two-legged 2014 World Cup qualifying play-offs, with question marks lingering over the fitness of first-choice goalkeeper Hugo Lloris.
The French Football Federation posted a video earlier in the week of the Tottenham Hotspur netminder in training to quell fears that the 26-year-old might be forced to miss the opening clash in Kiev on Friday. However, on Monday the Daily Mail claimed that he is set to feature in the crucial clash.
Doubts continue to persist over Lloris' true level of fitness at present, following the revelation that he was dropped for Spurs’ defeat to Newcastle United last Sunday because he failed to come through a concussion evaluation successfully. As revealed by the Independent, the Frenchman failed an Immediate Post-Concussion Assessment and Cognitive Testing (ImPACT) examination.
Former France national team doctor Jean-Marcel Ferret has also told Le Parisien via ESPN FC that Spurs put the player’s health at risk by allowing him to continue in the recent clash with Everton when he should have been substituted.
With the true extent of Lloris’ injury and the subsequent lay-off period currently unknown, this poses more than just one problem for France coach Didier Deschamps.
Not only is Lloris far and away Les Bleus’ first-choice goalkeeper, he is also captain of the team. There are no obvious and viable replacements for the former Olympique Lyonnais custodian should he be forced to miss one or both of the Ukraine clashes, so Deschamps’ possible replacement is unclear.
Who could the World Cup- and European Championship-winning former midfielder turn to if Lloris is ruled out?
Previously, Deschamps would have been able to call on former captain Patrice Evra.
The Manchester United man wore the armband for the ill-fated 2010 World Cup campaign in South Africa and bore the brunt of the criticism when the team returned home from their group-stage elimination. However, Evra has since played his way back into the team and featured during the 2012 European Championship campaign in Ukraine and Poland.
Franck Ribery also recently revealed that it was the 32-year-old who helped inspire France to a 4-2 victory over Belarus in a key qualifier back in September, despite the former captain not even being on the pitch.
But Evra’s recent tirade towards the French football media, for which he has gone unpunished, as reported by ESPN FC, appears to rule him out of ever captaining the side again. In fact, the former Monaco man should probably consider himself lucky to have not been forced into early international retirement.
With his best reserve option no longer a possibility, Deschamps must look at other alternatives.
Current Monaco captain Eric Abidal is possibly the best vice-captain, but questions must be asked of his actual inclusion in the squad given Les Monegasques’ recent dip in form.
Abidal and defensive partner Ricardo Carvalho have both started to look their age, and Claudio Ranieri’s side are conceding goals. The 34-year-old’s case for inclusion, outside of his undoubted experience, is tenuous.
Besides the former Barcelona man there are few alternatives, though, and fewer who play regularly enough in the side to merit being handed the armband. Abidal’s seniority over everyone in the squad, bar third-choice goalkeeper Mickael Landreau, might just seal it for him if Lloris was to miss out.
No. 2 goalkeeper Steve Mandanda captains Olympique de Marseille at club level, but rarely features for France. Rio Mavuba leads second-placed Ligue 1 outfit Lille OSC, but has only just been recalled by Deschamps and is hardly a regular enough fixture to justify starting, let alone captaining the side.
Blaise Matuidi has demonstrated during this season and last that he has the makings of a future captain at club level for Paris Saint-Germain. However, he is only afforded the opportunity when Thiago Silva and Zlatan Ibrahimovic are both missing, which is not very often.
Deschamps could look to the future and give Matuidi a chance. But doing so would put pressure on one of his side’s most consistent performers, possibly leading to some uncharacteristically shaky performances while he adjusts to the responsibility.
The Ukraine clashes are hardly the right time to experiment.
Franck Ribery is the obvious choice in terms of leading by example, but whether or not to give the captaincy to the FC Bayern Munich man is debatable.
The 30-year-old FIFA Ballon d’Or candidate has only just started to replicate his club form at international level after years of under-performance. It makes little sense to immediately burden him with the captaincy when Deschamps will be demanding two big performances from the former Marseille man already.
It remains to be seen whether or not Lloris will be fit enough to start and lead the side in Kiev. But if he is not, then Abidal looks most capable of deputising. What is clear once you scratch beneath the surface in Les Bleus’ current setup is that there is very little obvious leadership quality at present.
With Evra now not an option because of his recent controversy, Abidal’s experience would be adequate to lead the side through both Ukraine matches if needs be.
Captaincy on the pitch is a contentious issue, with many claiming that one player wearing the armband does not make the slightest bit of difference. Perhaps. However, the problem with Deschamps needing to replace Lloris as skipper is that, faced by a vibrant yellow-and-blue attack, it makes the declining Abidal suddenly an indispensable figure, potentially for both games:
7 - Lloris has kept 7 clean sheets this season, only De Sanctis (9) and Enyeama (11) have more in the Top 4 European leagues + L1. Rampart.— OptaJean (@OptaJean) November 12, 2013
A replacement goalkeeper would be needed, and second-choice Mandanda’s international form is questionable on the rare occasions that he is used. France’s defence without the ever-dependable Lloris looks vulnerable heading into the key clashes.