Wednesday, June 21, 2006

France - moving forward

I have to dedicate an seperate piece to my beloved Les Bleus. I must admit that prior to the start of the tournament I had some guarded optimism about how far the French could go in this tournament. They won 1-0 versus a tired Mexico team, played great against the always tough Danes, and looked lethergic versus China (due in large part to the horrific injury to Cisse). I felt that maybe, just maybe Domenech had righted the ship, despite himself. The defense looked solid (I really like Abidal on the left side), Barthez looked like the good Barthez not the clown Barthez, Henry was strong and seemed to work well with Ribery, Zidane seemed to accept his role as passer no longer being able to beat 2 -3 players with his former dazzling footwork....alas after two lethargic games France look poised for a dramatic crashing out of their second world cup.

First, I think that Domenech has not been the right manager since day one. He came in under a cloud. Santini had underachieved at the Euro, losing to the eventual champions Greece but the French looked lethargic the entire tournament. Santini insisted on keeping an aging and ineffective Desailly to anchor his defense, forced Zidane to play on the wing, and did not bring in enough youth to give the team a semblance of the next generation. France beat England 2-0 mainly due to English stupidity and poor penalty taking (fouling Makelele at the 18, setting up Zidane's masterful direct kick? Gerrards beautiful through ball to Henry? Beckham's missed penalty shot?), barely drew with Croatia, and struggled to beat Switzerland (thinking of it I would have LOVED to struggle to beat the swiss this year....). Santini left after the Euro (he had announced that prior to the tournament which I think was terrible for the team) to manage Spurs. Then started the fireworks - some players asked for Laurent Blanc to manage, others like former World Cup winning manager Aime Jacquet pushed for his buddy who managed the youth team Domenech. We all know who emerged. Then we saw the veterans retire - Desailly, Lizarzu, Makelele, Thuram and the biggest - Zidane. Domenech was not the universally accepted choice, and was not a strong enough personality to pull the team together.

Second, the team has been in flux. The French tried to establish a new system to work around the lack of a true number 10. Still possessing a wealth of talent they could not figure out what system to play with players staring for their clubs such as - Henry, Trezeguet, Saha, Anelka, Guily, Micoud, etc. They struggled with qualifying, however things could hvae been very different early on. The France - Switerland match in Paris had at least 3 clear times when the French missed point blank chances. That would have changed everything. The French did not know how to build a team around Henry or Vieira .... they needed the old guard of Zidane, Thuram and Makelele back to ensure qualification. Domenech has not been able to resolve this issue.

Third, the 2002 debacle still weighs heavily on the team. With many players returning from that debacle, many are afraid to lose. They do not want to live throught that humiliation again. There is no leader such as Blanc or Deschamps that can motivate and push the team. the old guard lead by example and are not the most vocal players.

Finally, the team is old. With 6 players from the 1998 world cup team - Barthez, Thuram, Henry, Trezeguet, Vieira, and Zidane, as well as aged stars - Wiltord, Makelele, Sagnol, and Dhorosso - the team is getting on in years. This is one of the oldest teams in the tournament, and it shows. Against both the swiss and the koreans it was apparent in the second half when the French were lethargic. It is a little to late to select more youth but maybe it what youth is there needs to be leveraged (which appears to be the case with Trezeguet and Henry up front, Malouda and Ribery playing the wings against Togo)

What does this mean? The French, should qualify for the second round. They should be able to defeat Togo by at least 2 goals. Then again they should have scored in the 2002 world cup...

France qualifies, barely, for the next round....but loses, badly to a red hot Spain side.

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