France the most in-form team going into Euro 2012
The crowd at Le Mans’ MMArena were positively bouncing at the end of France’s 4-0 friendly victory against Estonia, and with good cause, for Les Bleus travel to their Donetsk base for Euro 2012 having established themselves as Europe’s form side.
The players responded to their support, holding a banner at the end of the match that said: "Thank you! At the Euros with you and for you." It was an unthinkable response from the team during the reign of Raymond Domenech, which served to sever and isolate all stakeholders in the French game, culminating in a stunning implosion at the 2010 World Cup.
Under Laurent Blanc, much has changed. Les Bleus are in the midst of a 21-game undefeated streak; the longest of any of the Euro 2012 finalists, ahead of Russia and the Republic of Ireland, whose runs are only 14 matches.
Offensively, France have positively sparkled in their recent friendlies, finally discovering the kind of potential that has been untapped since the days of Zinedine Zidane.
Whereas the training camp before and during the World Cup campaign in 2010 served only to spectacularly drive the team apart, the time France have spent at Clairefontaine over the last few weeks seems to have been effective in bringing the side together, in an attacking sense at least.
Franck Ribery could have been forgiven for approaching Euro 2012 with his head sunk, having seen three titles stolen away from his Bayern Munich side towards the end of the domestic season, including the Champions League. Without a goal in 21 internationals, the critics had their knives ready, but the 29-year-old bounced back expertly by scoring in three successive internationals, playing arguably his best football for France since the World Cup of 2006, in which he so spectacularly burst on to the scene.
Ribery seems to have finally fostered an effective understanding with Karim Benzema, whose performances have been cause for great optimism, too, with a return of two goals in the three friendlies. The Real Madrid striker’s first effort against Estonia – France’s second of the evening – was a thing of the highest class, sending a fierce shot into the net from an acute angle, and will provide him with great confidence ahead of match-ups against England, Sweden and Ukraine.
Benzema may only have three goals in his last 12 internationals, but his overall contribution far exceeds what this tally suggests.
From the bench, France also flexed their muscles, with Jeremy Menez coming on to score from a flick from fellow sub Olivier Giroud, who seems to make a positive offensive contribution every time he arrives on the field.
It is not all smiles and goals for France, though, as Blanc admitted after the match that he is still not happy with the defensive efforts of his side, with the performance of Philippe Mexes again coming into question, as he was beaten for pace on several occasions as the visitors broke.
France’s susceptibility to the counterattack is certainly not aided by the loss of their two most mobile holding midfielders in the form of Blaise Matuidi and Yann M’Vila, who are both presently injured. While the former is set to miss the opening match against England next Monday, there is only slim hope that the Rennes man will be able to feature.
While Blanc can be more than satisfied with his side’s overall performance and positively brimming with enthusiasm over Les Bleus’ offensive efforts, there remain signs of vulnerability that will have Roy Hodgson licking his lips. If France’s flair can win out over their fragility next Monday, though, England could be in for a tough examination as Ribery, Benzema & Co. start on their road to glory.