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Euro 2012 preview: French fancy
It used to be easy to assess the French. For decades they produced great soccer journalists, great ideas (Olympic soccer, the European Cup) and they always offered great food. Great players and great soccer teams? Significantly absent in a land that never seemed to take team sports very seriously.
Then came Michel Platini, Marius Tresor, Alain Giresse and the rise of hope: there were glorious failures in two World Cups (1982, 1986) but the foundation for future success was laid with a European title won at home in 1984.
When Zinedine Zidane, Laurent Blanc & Co. were in their prime the French dominated, winning both World and European titles and establishing themselves as a benchmark against which other teams were judged. Even in 2006, when the bloom was clearly starting to fade, France was still good enough to reach a World Cup final only to lose on penalties.
Then, France declined dramatically, flaming out in South Africa. It was strangely received: instead of looking at the overall history, which suggested a great French phase was over and that more normal performance should be expected, blamestorming began. The press couldn't get enough of finger-pointing, especially at departed coach Raymond Domenech. To be fair, this clownish man invited negative attention. To think, how many coaches have used a post-loss press conference to propose to their girlfriend?
Now the French arrive at Euro 2012 as outsiders, and this probably about where they belong. Some sanity seems to have returned.
Blanc is now the coach. The pipeline of exceptional talent has dried up significantly so achieving something special in this championship will come down to his ability to fix a leaky defense and structure an idiosyncratic attack.
France does have one superstar, Bayern Munich's Franck Ribery. He can create goals by himself and is a proven big-game player. After Ribery, it’s nothing but question marks.
Olivier Giroud, Yohan Cabaye, Hatem Ben Arfa and Samir Nasri all could use Euro 2012 as their stage to take a step toward greatness, but not one is a proven international star.
FIFA Ranking: 16
Nickname: Les Bleus
League: Ligue 1
Star to Watch: Franck Ribery
Cabaye and Ben Arfa enjoyed remarkable years at surprise-package Newcastle, but there they played under little pressure until the final month when the Toon lost three of its last four and flopped out of a near-certain Champions League place. In Ukraine, their every move will be chronicled and criticized – this is a far bigger moment.
Giroud, too, featured on a surprise team, leading Montpellier to a quite unexpected French League crown. He's never been asked to shoulder the burden that would come with leading his country's attack.
And Nasri -- well if you could bottle the big moments you might have another French midfield genius, but consistency has eluded the Manchester City man just as stardom did during his days of unfulfilled potential at Arsenal.
Blanc will probably count on Karim Benzema rather than Giroud up top, but the loss of Loic Remy means that at least one of the other three must play at the highest level for the French attack to work.
Defensively, it's patch and pray. Hugo Lloris is a quality keeper, but hardly unbeatable. Of the defenders, Gael Clichy is arguably the highest quality. Patrice Evra must live in the shadow of his performance in South Africa and expect brutal criticism if he flops here. Philippe Mexes has never turned into the "next" Laurent Blanc as was forecast when he was a youth and the rest of the backs are average at best in international terms.
What's very good for France, however, is their first round group. They are the only "skill" team in a section of muckers and have the extra advantage of starting against England while Wayne Rooney is suspended. Ribery, alone, should strike fear into an England defense that isn’t exactly loaded with one-on-one experts. And neither Sweden nor Ukraine looks fearsome.
A run beyond the quarterfinals is certainly possible, especially if the French can top their section, but winning a semifinal would appear beyond this collection -- even if Blanc manages to keep all the egos under control and figures out a way to make his defenders play near perfect soccer.
Jamie Trecker is the senior editor for FOXSoccer.com covering the UEFA Champions League and the Barclays Premier League.
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