By Kishan Vaghela
When France’s Karim Benzema announced in April of this year that he would not be selected for the upcoming European Championships in his home country, many believed that this would ultimately result in Les Bleus falling short of winning their first European title since 2000. However, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann and André-Pierre Gignac have all contributed to the 16 goals scored since that horrific November night in Paris against Germany.
During the same period, however, they have struggled defensively, managing to keep just one clean sheet in five games. To exacerbate the problem, Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane and Barcelona’s Jérémy Mathieu have both been ruled out of the tournament, whilst the charnière of Sevilla’s Adil Rami and Arsenal’s Laurent Koscielny failed to convince against Cameroon. Scotland’s toothless attack hardly provided a stern test to which the French duo could respond, the end result a 3-0 win for Les Bleus, with these matches being the two friendlies before the hosts’ opening game at the Stade de France against Romania.
Koscielny has never exhibited the same form on the international stage as he has produced with Arsenal, and the fragility of France’s current defensive situation seems to have brought out the unduly enthusiastic 24-year-old centre-back who joined Arsène Wenger’s side from Lorient in 2010. At the age of 30, Koscielny’s occasional impetuous decisions, imbued with a lack of natural leadership qualities, have created intermittent rumblings of discontent amongst the French public. These qualities, or rather lack of, have done little to appease the French media that his partnership with Rami will compensate for the losses of Varane and Mathieu.
Seldom do footballers openly acknowledge their shortcomings with a major tournament just around the corner, but Rami gave himself no choice but to do so after his nervous display against Les Lions Indomptables. Despite appearing isolated in terms of his partnership with Koscielny, he failed to track the lively Vincent Aboubakar’s run for Cameroon’s first goal, whilst his tame defending in the lead up to Eric Maxim Choupo-Moting’s goal, was equally apprehensive. The Schalke forward’s strike would have seen Cameroon salvage a draw, save further brilliance from West Ham’s free-kick maestro Dimitri Payet.
The 29-year-old epitomizes France’s qualities in midfield, possessing the intelligence, technical quality and vision desired in what is arguably their strongest area of the pitch, despite Lassana Diarra’s injury to his left knee, which has resulted in a late call-up for Manchester United’s Morgan Schneiderlin after the 31-year-old Marseille midfielder ruled himself out of the tournament by personally contacting manager Didier Deschamps. N’Golo Kanté’s progression from the depths of French football to the Premier League’s best central midfielder has been well-documented by every expert and fan across the globe, and his performance against the Scots was testament to his emergence, despite playing in an unfamiliar role as the sole midfielder in front of the defence. Alongside the spirited Blaise Matuidi and the imposing Paul Pogba, the 25-year-old could be the cohesive element in an irrepressible midfield combination.
With Yohan Cabaye also part of the squad, the 47-year-old France manager, who himself represented Les Tricolores 103 times between 1989-2000, can also call upon a more experienced player at the base of the trio in the form of the Crystal Palace man. Every midfielder selected seems to be congruous with the expectations of a national team midfielder, each being able to produce their own individual moment of magic, highlighted in all of the goals against Cameroon, whether it be Matuidi’s well-controlled volley, Pogba’s cross for Giroud’s goal or yet another Payet free-kick.
Nevertheless, such harmonious camaraderie has not been created in the striking department, very little of which the likes of Giroud and Gignac have been able to control. Karim Benzema’s alleged involvement in the blackmailing of his fellow countryman Mathieu Valbuena over a sextape has lead divisive figures such as Eric Cantona and even Benzema himself to criticise Deschamps, the former on the grounds of racial discrimination in the squad against the likes of Benzema and former Newcastle United midfielder Hatem Ben Arfa, whilst the Real Madrid striker believes the 47-year-old has “bowed to pressure from a racist part of France”. Whilst these statements pertain to negative discrimination, the adversity that has been generated by Benzema’s exclusion has provoked the most alarming hostility amongst the crowd.
Giroud was booed at the Stade de la Beaujoire despite scoring his fifth goal in four international appearances. However, goalscoring is not the most criticised aspect of the 29-year-old’s game. European football expert Andy Brassell told BBC Radio 5 Live that the French public view the Arsenal striker as “technically deficient”, a baffling opinion considering his club manager is renowned for having accumulated the most technical playmakers at the expense of powerful and destructive enforcers. Such animosity towards the former Montpellier forward was not detected in Metz as he silenced the boo boys after his brace against Scotland on Saturday, one of which was courtesy of a sumptuous Madjer.
Giroud is clearly not the striker to lead Arsenal to the Premier League title. Nonetheless, Deschamps’ tactical use of the striker may prove more fruitful than it has for Arsène Wenger. The former Marseille manager has selected Giroud and Gignac as focal points for the attack, who in conforming to the system will provide for the plethora of quality behind them. Don’t be surprised either, if they both enjoy successful tournaments themselves, given the ability of youngsters Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman, in addition to Antoine Griezmann, to cause havoc on the flanks and deliver dangerous crosses.
Whilst Arsenal’s midfielders largely fired blanks last season, Deschamps has a greater variety of goalscoring midfielders and wingers at his disposal in comparison to his French counterpart. Matuidi has scored twice for his country this calendar year, against Holland and Cameroon respectively, whilst Pogba’s long-range shooting ability and Payet’s free-kick proficiency will persist as a threat.
Up front, Griezmann managed 32 goals in all competitions for Atlético Madrid, and will be constantly highlighted by many a pundit in spite of his Champions League final penalty miss against rivals Real Madrid. Martial and Coman both zealously burst onto the stage at two of the most prominent clubs in European football, Martial’s mesmerising introduction to the Old Trafford faithful against arch rivals Liverpool was as scintillating as Coman’s goal, against parent club Juventus, for Bayern Munich in the last 16 of the Champions League, with the pair’s general desire to commit and beat defenders unprecedented on the continent.
Zinédine Zidane lifted the Champions League trophy over a week ago, the man in the prime of his career when France achieved European Championship glory in 2000. Les Bleus will need another pioneer to steer the home nation towards further glory this summer. That man will not, for once, be Karim Benzema, with L’Equipe stating that “his message and his timing show a certain contempt for the 23 players who are preparing for the Euros”. With security concerns and off-field antics at the forefront of political and sporting agenda alike, this tournament will demonstrate how far the national side has come since their last triumph.
Photograph: William Morice via Flickr