France travel to Kiev with concerns over the fitness of goalkeeper and captain Hugo Lloris not yet totally allayed ahead of Friday’s fixture. The Olympic Stadium in the Ukrainian capital hosts the first of Les Bleus’ two World Cup qualifying play-offs for the right to be in Brazil for next summer’s main event.
However, despite comprehensive recent victories over Australia and Finland, it was not that long ago that Didier Deschamps’ side could not buy a goal. A goalless draw in Georgia was followed by a flattering 4-2 win over Belarus in Gomel, after the French had trailed twice, so there are still question marks over how strong this France side is.
With Ballon d’Or hopeful Franck Ribery in-form for club team Bayern Munich and now crucially for country as well, Deschamps’ men will fancy their chances.
Lloris’ potential absence is not something that the World Cup and European Championship-winning former midfielder will have planned for though. Should the Tottenham Hotspur man not be fit enough to start, it will mean making one or two changes.
Prior to the 26-year-old’s injury, Deschamps would have almost certainly decided that he wanted to go with some continuity and name the same side that beat Finland 3-0 at the Stade de France a month ago.
The same 11 players that started the clash with the Fennoscandians are available for the first-leg clash against Mykhaylo Fomenko’s Ukraine side. However, the Yellow-Blues will pose more of a threat to Les Bleus than their previous opponents and Deschamps might have to make changes accordingly.
Despite impressive performances from Mathieu Debuchy against Australia and Finland, the hosts will target the Newcastle United man and Patrice Evra, if he is started at left back. Ukraine boast impressive wide talents in Yevhen Konoplyanka and Andriy Yarmolenko and the latter in particular will concern the French given his physical advantage over the Manchester United man.
However, Bacary Sagna and Gael Clichy have shown little recently to suggest that they deserve to start ahead of Debuchy or Evra so it is difficult to see Deschamps making a host of unnecessary changes.
One alteration he might be tempted to make is taking the ageing Eric Abidal out of the defence. The 34-year-old has struggled in recent weeks for club side AS Monaco and, considering his lack of pace, a more mobile option might be better.
Raphael Varane has demonstrated his strong credentials despite his young age on numerous occasions and impressed against Australia even though he was short of match fitness. Deschamps could opt to partner the Real Madrid man with Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny, arguably France’s central defensive pairing going into the future, but Varane’s knee complaint might create a chance for Mamadou Sakho.
In midfield, Paul Pogba’s excellent continued form with Juventus almost certainly means that he will start alongside Paris Saint-Germain’s irrepressible Blaise Matuidi.
The question will be who plays ahead of the pair. Deschamps got the best out of Ribery against Finland by playing creative talents Samir Nasri and Mathieu Valbuena in the midfield with him. However, the Olympique de Marseille man’s form has been waning of late and dropping the diminutive midfielder to the bench would not be wholly unjustified.
With little penetration on the right against Finland, playing Newcastle’s Loic Remy out wide with Nasri in the middle would give Les Bleus more teeth going forward and more of a legitimate wide threat.
Otherwise there are few wide options in the squad and Ribery’s form dictates that he must feature in his preferred berth on the left, ruling out Marseille’s Dimitri Payet who is struggling for form.
Assuming that Nasri does start once more, he will likely be playing behind Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud.
Karim Benzema may have hit the goal trail once again in his past two matches, having gone 1698 minutes without a goal before that, but Giroud has not let the team down since replacing the Real Madrid man at the point of the attack.
It would be unfair to ditch him again so soon on the back of Benzema’s late goal against Finland. Giroud did not score against the Finns and Deschamps is unlikely to take the risk of trying to play Benzema in a no. 10 role with Nasri out on the right so it will surely be one or the other.
Lloris appears confident that he will play from the start, which is a good indication of Deschamps’ intentions, so we can assume that Les Bleus will not be led by a stand-in captain. The biggest dilemmas will be whether to stick with Abidal when there are clearly better options in the middle and keeping faith in an out of form Valbuena.
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