mardi 12 octobre 2010

Brave New Blue World

Gaffer nose best.

Now to a topic I'd intended to avoid: the French national team. Believe it or not, the title of this blog was the fruit of great deliberation. 'French Football' encompasses too much that happens outside France - not least Wenger, Anelka, Evra and Henry - and about which you can read elsewhere. My objective is to write about football in France, hence the catchy 'Football in France is Rubbish' and my reluctance to discuss a group of players among which the most celebrated ply their trade abroad.

But in recent weeks, circumstances have changed. The majority of Laurent Blanc's refurbished Bleus play in France - quite a novelty given that during the World Cup, Raymond Domenech picked a maximum of four home based players per match. The side that beat Romania 2-0 on Saturday will not be unfamiliar to followers of English clubs. Champions League regulars Lloris, Mexès, Alou Diarra and Benzema started alongside a trio londonien composed of Clichy, Nasri and Malouda. Most pertinent to this article though are the remaining names on Blanc's teamsheet: Rami, Réveillère, M'Vila and Valbuena. All four play in France, as do Lloris and Diarra and the three substitutes used; Gourcuff, Payet and Rémy.

Blanc's apparent preference for Ligue 1 players may be misleading since it's highly unlikely he would have overlooked Evra or Ribéry for the opening matches of his reign (Saturday's was the fourth) had either been available. Both, however, are suspended thanks to their roles as protagonists of the strike in Knysna. While the positivity now surrounding the France squad has been widely attributed to its new manager, several pundits have suggested that the absence of these two erstwhile stars has also been beneficial. Ribéry in particular is a divisive figure. His feud with Gourcuff is an open secret and seems to have affected the Bayern bad boy less than his more sensitive compatriot, who is regarded by many in the game (somewhat inaccurately) as a middle-class softy.

Whatever their status in the squad, Evra and Ribéry will return. The same is not necessarily true of Jérémy Toulalan (also punished in the light of Knysna-gate) owing to a dramatic dip in form and the success of his replacement. Of the lesser-known players to feature in the victory over Romania, twenty-year-old Yann M'Vila is surely destined to be the most significant. The defensive midfielder emerged last season at Rennes and has shined brightly during this campaign, in which Rennes have supplanted St. Etienne at the top of the table. His playing style and temperament have elicited comparisons with Makelele. In fact, at six foot, M'Vila is far more physically imposing than the man the French call 'Papy Claude' and regard as the definitive récupérateur. Difficult then, to imagine him in a Rennes shirt for long...

Discounting Réveillère (who is thirty) and the overrated Valbuena, the other newcomer to assert himself in Blanc's plans is centre-back Adil Rami. Four years older than M'Vila and not nearly as gifted, Rami has nonetheless seized his opportunity with impressive authority. Big and combattive, he is an ideal partner for Philippe Mexès who - despite a torrid month with his club, Roma - reaffirmed against Romania that he is a world class defender. Blanc favours footballers in his own mould (like Mexès) rather than stoppers, but clearly appreciates the value of Rami's uncompromising tackling and strength in the air.

Besides their A.O.C label, the defining characteristic of Blanc's selections has been youth. A glance at the following list of names and ages reveals a core of over a dozen current squad members who can hope to reach their prime around the 2014 World Cup (some much later).

The "experienced professionals"
Lloris (23) GK
Mandanda (25) GK
Clichy (25) DF
Nasri (23) MF
Gourcuff (24) MF
Diaby (24) MF
Lassana Diarra (25) MF
Benzema (22) FW

Les Jeunes Turcs

Rami (24) DF
Sakho (20) DF
Cissokho (23) DF
M'Vila (20) MF
Payet (23) MF
Matuidi (23) MF
Rémy (23) FW
Gameiro (23) FW

Dare I say it? The future looks rosy for Blanc's Bleus.

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