Michael Steele/Getty Images
This probably has to be the most disillusioned team ever going to the World Cup. A tottering coach with his head as good as on the chopping block, an illustrious strike squad merely a shadow of their previous selves and a qualifying campaign that needed a bit of handiwork to put them through.
The French have never been this unanimous in making their displeasure known. However, Raymond Domenech still finds himself with the top job of leading France to South Africa. Either his stars must be really good or Domenech has some really good friends at the FFF or its as simple as this .... the FFF has lost its mind. The Irish must be cursing their luck but the WC does not seem complete without France (no offense to the Irish I would have loved to see both teams there) and also if there is anyone who is responsible for the events during that fateful night it would have to be FIFA and their bungling referees.
In a few weeks time Domenech may, as reports suggest, be heading out and his place may be taken by the astute Laurent Blanc. But the former Red Devil has another year left on his contract with Bordeaux and with 4 games to go in the Lique 1, Blanc has other things on his mind now. A formal decision could be expected, as soon as, the French Season comes to a close.
Still despite all his short-comings, Domenech has at his disposal one of the most talented squads of the world and a pool of players as wide as any. True, he does not have the spark that the likes of Zizou and Viera added to his team but it is high time someone else picked up the mantle if the French are going to make any headway in the competition. Viera may still have an outside chance of making the team given Domenech's sometimes inexplicable selections(read Bafe Gomis) but it is highly unlikely. The French find themselves in a relatively comfortable group with the likes of Uruguay, Mexico and the hosts South Africa. However, complacency played its part in knocking the Les Tricolores out of the WC in 2002, something they are sure to be weary of. Uruguay and Mexico are both slippery customers, having never performed exceedingly well on the big stage in recent times, they will be out to prove a point, while the 12th man effect could play a role in the Bafana-Bafana pulling off an upset in the Finals this year.
Thierry Henry in all probability would be leading the Les Bleus at the center and would be carrying the hopes of the French. A far-cry from his free scoring self that made him a Gunner Legend, he finds himself way down the pecking order in Barcelona today. The WC would however give him the chance to redeem himself and silence critics of this French side many of whom believe its the Irish and not them who should be on the flight to the Rainbow Nation.
This is one area Domench will be comfortable about. In Hugo Lloris, France have if not the best, one of the top goal-keepers in the world. His performance for Lyon both in the Lique 1 and the Champion's League have been phenomenal. At just 23 the young shot-stopper is among the best young players the tournament will witness. All about positioning and lightning reflexes, Lloris would have to play a major role to take his side through. In any other team Steve Mandanda, the Olympique Marseille custodian, would have been a direct first choice but for the French he would have to settle for No.2. In him the French have a No.2 capable of matching Lloris move for move. A possible third choice would be a toss-up between Bordeaux's Cedric Carraso or Auxerre's Olivier Sorin. Carraso should make the cut purely on the basis of experience even though Bordeaux haven't been their dominating selves this season.
Hugo Lloris, Steve Mandanda and Cedric Carraso.
The French defense looks average if not great. However the French do boast of quality defenders among their ranks. In Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna they possess two highly rated full backs, capable of adding teeth to the French attack while going ahead. While Evra possesses pace, Sagna is more than able at playing dangerous crosses into the box (though he needs to work on the consistency of his crosses). While Rod Fanni seems to be Domenech's preferred choice as cover for the right back position it remains to be seen if Stade Rennes man gets the nod for the trip to South Africa. Gael Clichy after an injury plagued start to the season seems to have picked up the pieces and is playing at the top of his game.
The weakest link in this French team would have to be the center backs. While William Gallas stayed more or less constant throughout the qualifiers he had as many as five partners along the course of the qualifiers. Phillipe Mexes, Julien Escude, Sebastien Squillaci, Jean-Alain Boumsong and Eric Abidal were all given a go. The apparent weakness in this department could have also prompted Domenech to use two defensive midfielders to strengthen his backfour. The preferred pairing for the French would be William Gallas (if fit) with the temperamental Boumsong. Boumsong, well known for error prone ways when at Newcastle now seems to have matured into one of Europe's top defenders. His performances in the Champion's League were noteworthy and Domenech does seem to be a fan of the Cameroon born defender. He could face stiff competition from Mexes who has had a good season with Roma. Eric Abidal is another option for Domenech. The pacy Barcelona man is capable of playing in left back position as he does for the Blaugrana, and is more than able at nullifying any threats on the wings.
William Gallas, Jean-Alain Boumsong, Bacary Sagna, Patrice Evra, Eric Abidal, Phillipe Mexes
No Zizou, no Viera - infact this midfield is in desperate need of some inspiration if the Les Bleus need to stamp their authority in the tournament this summer. The French under Domenech were forced to play a conventional 4-4-2 due to injuries, however it would be interesting to see what Domenech(or Blanc for that matter) does with a full strength squad at his disposal. Ideally the French should look to play 4 in midfield - one in a defensive role (a la Makalele), two on the wings leaving the fourth in the playmaker's role. A 4-1-3-2 essentially, but it could leave them porous in defence.
In the enforcer's role they have two of the best in Lassana Diarra and the Jeremy Toulalan. While Toulalan can also double up as a full back or center back, Lasana Diarra provides an attacking option as well. Domenech's insistence in playing both men has led to Les Bleus' less than impressive scorelines. An overtly defensive approach that has wasted the abundant talent the French possess while going forward. Lille's Rio Mavuba and Bordeaux's Alou Diarra would be competing as cover for this position, but in all probability Toulose youngster Moussa Sissoko would get the call ahead of A.Diarra and Mavuba. Widely hailed as the next Veira (how many times have we heard this) the 20 year old has been a regular feature in the squad for the qualifiers though he has been capped just twice.
On the wings the Les Bleus can claim to have a advantage even the likes of Brazil and Spain don't enjoy. In Florent Malouda and Franck Ribery, the French have two lethal wingers capable of decimating the best of defences. Ribery, widely rated as one of the best attacking midfielders in the world, has not looked his best this season. Injuries and a recent controversy about his involvement in an underage prostitution racket has led to a dip in form. Domenech's insistence to play him on the wing and not in his preferred central role has not gone well with him. Malouda's form on the other hand has been quite phenomenal. With 16 goals this season and most of them in the latter half of the season, Malouda sure has hit a purple patch and will look to carry his form to the WC. With both these players vying for the same position, on present form Domenech would have to give his nod to the Chelsea man. Ribery, however may either be used as an impact substitute or played in the hole behind the conventional striker.
On the right Sidney Govou and Samir Nasri and could be viable options. However both of them have not had very successful seasons with their respective clubs but Domenech's affinity for Govou and the Lyon captain's experience could see him make the squad. Nasri on the other hand offers more variety in his ability to play anywhere in midfield and his dribbling skills but it remains to be seen, if the Gunner who hasn't been called since April last year for the qualifier against Lithuania, makes the trip to South Africa.
Hatem Ben Arfa the OL man could also have an outside chance of making the 23. He has been on the fringes but with Malouda and Ribery competing for the same position his chances are very slim. As seen in the qualifiers Domenech may look to play the Chelsea hitman Nicholas Anelka on the wings, but playing him out of position may not be a very good idea. Anelka would have a lot more to offer playing as a lone striker or as support to Thierry Henry.
Finally as the playmaker/pivot and there could be no one better in this French squad than Yoann Gourcuff. The young Bordeaux man has grown in stature since his Milan debacle and has grown well into this role. A regular starter for Bordeaux, he hasn't been able to replicate the same form he showed for Les Giordins the last year when he combined with the Moroccan Marouane Chamakh to win them the Lique 1, nevertheless he is the best player the French have in that position since the famous Zizou vacated it. Benoit Cheyrou and Abou Diaby being the other contenders for the spot. Abou Diaby has put in some very ordinary performances for the majority of the season while Cheyrou, the Marseille man is more of a deep lying midfielder.
Florent Malouda, Franck Ribery, Sidney Govou, Yoann Gourcuff, Lassana Diarra, Jeremy Toulalan, Nicholas Anelka, Moussa Sissoko or Samir Nasri
The attack is an area in which Domenech will be praying for a miracle. His top strikers have all had mediocre seasons. Thierry Henry has not had much playing time against the better oppositions. Cisse has been plying his trade in Panathanikos, where he has been scoring almost for fun but he could play perfect foil to Henry if the need arises. Andre Pierre Gignac, the Toulose poacher has not been on the top of his form despite top-scoring for the French in the qualifiers, while Karim Benzema has had a forgettable season with the Los Blancos. Loic Remy the Nice striker has been in fine nick and his hard work should merit a call, though Domenech is known to have a soft corner for Bafe Gomis and eyebrows would be raised if he makes the 23. The bulk of the responsibility of scoring would fall on Henry again and he would have to stand up and pick up the gauntlet if the Les Bleus are to be a force in the tournament.
Thierry Henry, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Karim Benzema, Loic Remy, Djibril Cisse
Starting XI and Formation (4-1-3-1-1)