As we enter the last 100 days before Brazil’s World Cup begins, France are finalising their preparations as seriously as any of the 32 entrants. Speaking at last Thursday’s announcement of the squad to take on the Netherlands at the Stade de France, it was clear how close Didier Deschamps is to making his definitive choices.
The coach suggested it was “difficult to measure” how much being left out of the group for this prestige friendly compromised players’ chances of making the tournament (as reported here by L’Equipe, in French), but that “this choice (for this week’s game) is an important one”.
Adjustments, then, are possible, but the omens are not good for a raft of excluded senior players as things stand, including Samir Nasri, Eric Abidal and Adil Rami. Perhaps the biggest indication that Deschamps wishes to begin honing the group dynamic for Brazil already were the inclusions of Bayern Munich’s Franck Ribery and Mamadou Sakho of Liverpool—key elements in the play-off win over Ukraine—despite their current injuries.
In short, Deschamps is trying his best to sidestep the nasty surprises that have scuppered France at their last couple of major tournaments; the implosion in South Africa in 2010 and the moment in Euro 2012, after defeat to Sweden, that it became clear that Laurent Blanc’s rebuild had foundations of sand.
With that inglorious exit in Ukraine in mind, the most striking feature of France’s current squad is that the bulk of the fabled ’87 generation are absent. Of the most esteemed quartet of French players born in that year—Karim Benzema, Nasri, Jeremy Menez and Hatem Ben Arfa—only the in-form Benzema can be sure of his place in Brazil.
It’s a shame. This World Cup was supposed to be their moment. At 26 and 27 years old by the time the tournament gets underway, this prodigiously talented group were expected to have the maturity to guide France to, or at least towards, glory in South America.
They had been the clear stars of France’s 2004 Euro U-17 winners. Milan’s Kevin Constant and Rennes goalkeeper Benoit Costil were also involved, though the presence of Gerard Pique and Cesc Fabregas in Spain’s runners-up is perhaps more indicative of the generation we’re talking about—and of the standard that this bracket of French players were aspiring to.
Nasri scored the winner in the Chateauroux final after Pique had equalised Constant’s early opener, as recounted by UEFA.com’s Andrew Haslam here. Yet above and beyond the toxic fallout from the Manchester City midfielder’s public spat with a journalist after the Euro 2012 exit (reported by BBC Sport here), his limp display in the play-off first leg against Ukraine is what is really costing him now.
The brutal truth is that Deschamps has enough available quality at his disposal to not need to run any risks by including anything other than safe choices. Similarly, Lyon’s Yoann Gourcuff is unlikely to make it, with his injury record offsetting his good form.
With a reinvigorated Benzema backed by Ribery in the form of his life, a midfield anchored by the athleticism and power of Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba, and one of the Premier League’s finest goalkeepers in Hugo Lloris, France have an interesting card to play in Brazil. There is an X-factor to Deschamps’ choices, too.
The Netherlands game should be an opportunity for midfielder Clement Grenier (Lyon), Porto’s coveted defender Eliaquim Mangala and a debutant, Real Sociedad’s dynamic Antoine Griezmann, to show they can add youthful vigour to this promising mix.
An accessible group in Brazil, composed of Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador, opens up an inviting route to the quarter-final should France avoid repeating slip-ups of the past. For Deschamps, the mantra of stability begins now.
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