This French team is something of an enigma. A group of talented players seemingly unable to realise its collective ability, a team stewarded by an exasperatingly incapable coach whose unpopularity is at an all-time high. Yes, Raymond Domenech may have taken Les Bleus to the 2006 final, but that may have said more about the talents of Zinedine Zidane and Thierry Henry than it did his managerial abilities. Neither players not fans want Domenech anywhere near the national team, but it is hard to envisage him being sacked before the team travel to South Africa and, as a result, almost impossible to see how the French can claim the second World Cup triumph in their history.
Though Domench’s eccentric personality and haphazard coaching style has many flaws, one factor in his favour is the fact that he has settled on a formation which looks to suit the players at his disposal. Adopting a 4-2-3-1 pattern, Domenech employs Lassana Diarra and Yoann Gourcuff as holding midfielders behind the attacking trio of Franck Ribery, Jeremy Toulalan and Thierry Henry with either Nicolas Anelka or Karim Benzema used as a lone striker. This is a system which simultaneously shields the defence and gives France a cutting edge in attack, a system which, despite a few early teething problems, served France relatively well during the second half of the qualification campaign. With Toulalan dictating play going forward and the runs of Ribery and Henry keeping the full-backs busy, Les Bleus have the potential to instigate havoc amongst opposition defences if, and it’s a big if, Domenech can sufficiently organise his team.
France, on paper at least, have more than enough quality to win Group A with relative ease, but it’s rarely ever that simple. As we saw in 2002 with the group stage defeats to Senegal and Denmark and in 2006 with the draws against Switzerland and South Korea, L’Equipe tricolore can be maddeningly inconsistent in the early stages of the World Cup. In fact, it could well be that the first round proves the most difficult for France as, should they progress as group winners, it is likely they would meet either Nigeria or South Korea in the last sixteen, games Domenech would expect his side to win.
Considering all the off-field issues this team has had to endure, World Cup 2010 has the potential to be an embarrassment for France. That said, this will be one of the most talented squads in South Africa and, as we saw four years ago, should the French manage to extricate themselves from a difficult group, a run to the latter stages of the competition may not be beyond Les Bleus. I wouldn’t bet on it though.
Probable starting XI: Lloris (Lyon); Sagna (Arsenal), Gallas (Arsenal), Abidal (Barcelona), Evra (Manchester United); Toulalan (Lyon), Diarra (Real Madrid); Ribery (Bayern Munich), Gourcuff (Bordeaux)), Henry (Barcelona); Anelka (Chelsea)
The Road to South Africa: 2nd place in UEFA Group 7 – UEFA play-off winners
World Ranking: 10th