Saturday, September 21, 2013

France off to the World Cup play off...not surprising

I realize I am late with this post, but work sometimes gets in the way of writing...oh well. But I have also had time to reflect on France's last World Cup qualifier. First my thoughts on the match:

The Good: 
  • 3 points...sometimes you need to take a win and go home happy. France needed to leave Eastern Europe with at least 4 points to ensure a second pace finish and a spot in the play off. More on that later. After a lack luster 0-0 draw versus Georgia and after what appeared to be a potential disaster in Belarus Les Bleus found a way to restore regular service.
  • Goals...4 goals to be exact...after France had not scored in what felt like a decade, Les Bleus found the back of the net 4 times in the second half. Of course none of the goals came from any of the strikers, more on that later as well.
  • The Kaiser. Ribery saved Les Bleus. Scoring a brace in the second half he ignited the offense for France. He is the one true world class player France have in their line up. If Les Bleus hope to get out of the play off, Ribery will have to be at his best. Ribery won the European Player of the year award and continues to show his top class form. He must keep this up for France to have any chance moving forward.
  • Having Pogba and Matuidi back in the midfield.While I have written about the wealth of options that Deschamps has for his holding midfield role, it is nice to have his top options on the pitch together. Especially the U20 World Cup champion - Pogba. He is an absolute beast. His pressure created the second goal and he chipped in with a goal of his own. Just like needing a Ribery at his best, France will need for Pogba and Matuidi to be at their best to get through the playoffs.
The Bad:
  •  4 goals yes, but none from the strikers. How much longer can Les Bleus go without one of their strikers putting a ball into the goal? Benzema was given the day off so at least his goalless streak did not continue. But Giroud also was not able to find the back of the net, nor Gignac.  Neither really had a clear cut opportunity either. I do not think this will be fatal for France's chance at winning a playoff. However, if the problems is not resolved their visit to Brazil will be very short lived.
  • Right side of the formation. Once again there was very little activity on that side. Payet was mostly absent during the game and once Nasri came in, he started to drift back to the middle again. Granted he scored a goal...but from the left side. Sagna did bring some options to the right, but once again his crosses left much to be desired. Granted he did not always have much to aim for.
The Ugly:
  • Lloris...ugh.Easily his worst game ever for France. 2 goals that most keepers in my men's league would save! The second one in particular was terrible. I watched it over and over expecting to see some wicked knuckle or swerve on the shot. But no. It was a hard and heavy shot no doubt, but chest high and right at  Lloris. He just fanned on it. First goal was not as brutal...but also one a keeper should save. Let alone a world class keeper. It was ugly. But I am not concerned. Lloris is a world class keeper. 
  • Speaking of ugly goal-tending...Veremko was equally poor. The Belarusian keeper did not cover himself in glory either. His late challenge on Ribery led to the penalty kick and from that point forward he did not seem the most reliable set of hands.
So what does this all mean? France should finish second and qualify for a play off (mathematically they could still finish first in the group but that would require Spain to lose their last games and France to get a point from their Finland match...not likely). So figure France head right to the play off draw. Which should be interesting, why? France's world ranking continues to plummet. They might actually drop into the "second hat." Yikes. At first glance here are the nations that should be heading to the play-off:

Croatia 10
Bulgaria 64
Sweden 22
Ukraine 26
Greece 12
Portugal 11
Hungary 30

I am going to keep Iceland on the outside for the sake of this exercise. Next to each nation is their current FIFA world ranking. France is ranked #25. So the first hat would be:

Croatia, Portugal, Greece and Sweden

Second hat would have the other nations: Ukraine, Bulgaria, Hungary and France. Yikes. So Les Bleus could easily draw Portugal...not thanks. A trip to Croatia would be no picnic either. Of course if Russia should falter they could drop into the playoffs and Portugal would qualify directly. But Russia is also ranked ahead of France so would not change France's lot.

Bottom line, France are in for a very difficult play off. And they have no one to blame but themselves. Since the World Cup finals in 2006, they have had a terrible time in Euros and World Cups. Their win in the last Euros over Ukraine was their first victory in an international tournament since that 2006 run! Awful. That is how your world ranking drops. It also does not help when you don't score goals and consistently drop friendlies.

France have made their bed, they must now lie in it. They have the talent to do better, they always have. But for some reason the past 6+ years have been a series of disappointments and failures. The root cause for me? Leaving Domenech in charge after the awful 2008 Euro. That has put back the team at least 2 if not 4 years. Yes they made it to South Africa, but only with the "hand of gaul." And once in South Africa they showed their true colors and everything imploded. Alas. We are now suffering some of those after shocks.

I might even argue that not making it to Brazil would be good for the nation - a real shock that would force some changes and rethinking.

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