Thierry Henry, an artist with the football in his feet, called it a day last week. Soumyadip Das gives him a tribute here with Goalden Times.
Henryyyyyyyyyyyyyyy- the scream of commentator Martin Tylor will be remembered by Gunners forever as it was the sound that they use to hear after each of Thierry Henry’s goal for Arsenal. Earlier this week , he has called time on his career and retired from professional football. He is a living legend of Arsenal. He has won several trophies for them after moving from Italian club Juventus. He has also been a part of FC Barcelona later in his career, winning many trophies. For France in the national colours, he has won a World Cup and a Euro Cup. Although rated highly by many experts, Henry was not that much successful for France. Many people say that he was unable to replicate his club form for the national team. Was it really the case for a player, who played a big part in winning World Cup and Euro Cup for his national side? Let’s look back at his achievements for both clubs and national team during his prime.
Monaco, Juventus, Arsenal, Barcelona. Most footballers would be glad and proud to play for just one of those clubs over the course of their whole career: Thierry Henry played for all of them. The former France international plied his career in five different nations with five different clubs, breaking through at Monaco and moving on to Juventus before really coming of age and capability at Arsenal. He later moved to Barcelona before ending his career with New York Red Bulls (NYRB). He topped the charts in goal scoring in Premier League and won the Premier League Golden Boot four times (2001-02, 2003-04, 2004-05, 2005-06). He is Arsenal’s leading goal scorer of all time with 228 goals. Also, He finished his career with the highest number of assists in for NYRB.
After an uncertain start to his Monaco career in 1992, Henry was named the French Young Footballer of the Year in 1996. After a moderate run with Juventus, he joined Arsenal by the pursuit of his former Monaco manager Arsene Wenger. There he finished as the top scorer in the league with 24 goals to his name. He scored 32 goals in all competitions thereby starting a run of five successive seasons where he topped the goals’ tally across various competitions. The team as a whole were just as extraordinary, winning both the Premier League and FA Cup to clinch the double in 2002. 2003 was a top year for Henry personally as he won the PFA Players’ Player of the Year award and the FWA Footballer of the Year. He was also voted into the PFA Team of the Year and the UEFA Team of the Year. The striker was in the form of his life; scoring at will and showing great poise and power to be one of the biggest threats anywhere in the game. That was recognised as Henry was nominated for the FIFA World Player of the Year, eventually finishing in second place behind fellow countryman Zinedine Zidane. Arsenal fans will never forget 2003-04 as they went through the entire Premier League season unbeaten to claim another league title. Henry was, of course, central to all that the “Invincibles” achieved that year. He scored 30 goals in 37 league games and 39 in all competitions. Henry’s tally of 30 in the top flight was also enough to find him crowned the top scorer in Europe, winning the Golden Boot as a result. Wenger said of his fellow Frenchman: “Thierry Henry could take the ball in the middle of the park and score a goal that no one else in the world could score”. Again in 2006, he became the top scorer for Arsenal across all competitions. A statue of Henry’s trademark goal celebration outside the Emirates Stadium stands as a tribute to all he accomplished with the London club. “He deserves it, he is a fantastic player,” Ian Wright, the man Henry surpassed atop the Gunners’ scoring charts, said at the time. “It is no mean feat to come second to a player like that.”
After leaving Arsenal in 2007, Henry joined Barcelona in Spain and formed part of a deadly attacking line up which included a growing Lionel Messi and Samuel Eto’o. Henry’s best year with the Catalan side came in 2009 as he helped them win the Copa Del Rey and La Liga, with the Champions League following soon afterward. Further success was around the corner at the start of the next season, still in 2009, as Barcelona won the Supercopa, the UEFA Super Cup and the FIFA Club World Cup— a sextuple, every tournament won which they entered, with Henry a huge part of it.
In 1998 World Cup at his home soil, he scored in the group-stage match against South Africa and scored a brace against Saudi Arabia. Inspite of starting the campaign as a surprise inclusion, Henry finished as the leading goal scorer for France in their maiden World Cup winning venture. Two years later in the Euro 2000, which they also won he netted against Denmark and Czech Republic in the group stage and further scored one more, a crucial equaliser, in the semi-final against Portugal. In 2002 World Cup he couldn’t score and France were eliminated from the group stage. Henry returned to form for his country at the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup. Despite playing without Zidane and Patrick Vieira, France won the tournament largely due to Henry’s exceptional performance. He was adjudged the Man of the Match by FIFA’s Technical Study Group in three of France’s five matches. He also scored the golden goal in the final to lift the title for the host country. Henry was awarded with both the Adidas Golden Ball award as the excellent player of the competition and the Adidas Golden Shoe as the tournament’s top goal-scorer with four goals. During the 2006 FIFA World Cup Henry was one of the regular starters in the squad and scored three goals, including the winning goal from Zidane’s free kick which eliminated the defending champions Brazil from the competition in the quarter-final. Henry did not played much part in 2010 World Cup in South Africa and his sole appearance was as a second half substitute against the host nations. France lost the match by 2-1 and were eliminated from the tournament. Subsequently he announced his retirement from international football, having won a record 123 caps and scoring a national record of 51 goals for the Les Bleus.
Henry had a great ability to score from free-kicks. But his trademark style was scoring in the far post from outside the box after cutting inside from the left wing. In 2004, former Arsenal striker Alan Smith commented on Henry: “I have to say I haven’t seen a player like him. He’s an athlete with great technical ability and a tremendous desire to be the best”. Although he scored 51 goals for France including the goals in their World Cup and Euro triumph, but his critics argue that he couldn’t deliver in the biggest stage after 2000. During 2001-06, He was at his peak form for Arsenal. Unfortunately, he could not replicate that form for France except the Confederations Cup. Questions were raised after a disappointing show in 2002 World Cup. Many people said that he cannot perform in big stages when the other star player like Zidane was not in the team due to injury. In 2010 World Cup qualifier, France were second in the group and won the controversial play-off to qualify for the World Cup finals. In the play-off against Ireland, he controlled a long pass with his hand before making the assist for teammate William Gallas.
He scored many goals for France and many matches. But people expected more from him after his eye-catching performance for Arsenal. Most of his goals in the World Cup and Euro have come in the group stage. Some fans always consider him a legend, but could not compare him with other legends like Zidane, Platini etc. With his overall achievements, it can be said that Thierry Henry was a great French footballer who has served the French football over the years, but people will always remember him for his brilliance for Arsenal.
FIFA World Cup With Bollywood Curry
With World Cup just around the corner we re-imagined few of the cult Bollywood movie posters and gave them a football twist in a a humorous, cryptic and minimalist way to wish luck few of the popular nations. This is nothing official but to spice up the month long journey coming ahead. Enjoy – Football in Filmy Attire (in short we call it FIFA).
Argentina – Will He or won’t He be a witness this time?
Brazil – The zeal for beauty
England – For the Lion hearted
France- Head vs heart. Can they overcome the battle within?
Germany – Can they steel a win?
Italy – What’s cooking, Pastafarians?
Netherlands – Thirsting for a win
Spain – Will the bull run continue for the reigning champions?
E for Enigmatic
Continuing with GOALden Times‘ World Cup group preview series, Tamal Kanti Santra brings you the dynamics of Group E.
The two European teams France and Switzerland will fancy their chances against the lesser known South and Central American pair of Ecuador and Honduras in Group E of the World Cup 2014, Brazil. While Switzerland qualified for the tournament easily by winning the UEFA Group E, France scraped through to the finals with a difficult win against Ukraine in the play-offs. Ecuador and Honduras also struggled to qualify for the tournament. Honduras pulled a spirited performance against Mexico in Azteca to confirm their qualification.
After a group stage exit in the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, the 1998 champions were desperate to get back to winning ways. Laurent Blanc was appointed the coach after the 2010 debacle to rebuild a squad for the Brazil World Cup 2014. He started his managerial stint by suspending all 23 players of the squad involved in an ugly incident during the 2010 World Cup where they refused training. As a result, Blanc lost his first match against Norway playing with a depleted team. The multi- ethnic nature of the French squad made it very difficult for Blanc to manage the French team. In April 2011, Blanc stirred up a controversy after he was accused of secretly agreeing to implement a quota system to limit the players of dual-citizenship in the French academies. Finally, he stepped down after a dismal 2012 Euro Cup outing and was soon replaced in July 2012 by Didier Deschamps, the captain of the French team that won the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 Euro Cup. Even a person of the calibre of Deschamps found it very difficult to get a cohesive unit up and running.
France was pitted against the reigning champions Spain along with Finland, Georgia and Belarus in the UEFA Group I for the 2014 FIFA World Cup Qualifying round. Only one direct qualification spot for the winners of the group made qualifying for the World Cup a very difficult task for Deschamps. Eventually, France struggled through the World Cup Qualification rounds and came second to Spain forcing them to the play-offs. They had to beat Ukraine for a place in the 2014 World Cup. Leading up to the play-off match against Ukraine, France lost all their matches against good opponents like Germany, Spain, Brazil and Uruguay but won convincingly against average teams like Georgia, Belarus, Australia and Finland. This has been the trend for France even in the qualifying rounds. They scored more goals than Spain in their qualifying group, but a draw and defeat against a formidable Spain forced them to the play-offs. France lost the first leg of the play-off away to Ukraine 2-0. However, they fought back and confirmed their participation with a controversial 3-0 win against Ukraine in the return leg at home.
The French side under Deschamps is still following the traditional 4-3-3 formation. The 23- man squad includes goalkeeper Hugo Lloris (Totenham Hotspur), who will lead the French team in the World Cup. He had a mixed campaign with Totenham Hotspur where he displayed his brilliance inconsistently. The defensive responsibilities lie on the young Rafael Varane (Real Madrid) and Eliaquim Mangala (Porto). The French defense may not have much to deal with during the group stage but needs to be much more compact and organized during the knock-out stage when they will face stronger opponents. The midfield comprising Blaise Matuidi (Paris Saint German), Yohan Cabaye (Paris Saint German) and Paul Pogba (Juventus) needs to perform consistently against good opponents to lead a successful campaign.
The forward positions for France have some of the finest players of world football. Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich) and Karim Benzema (Real Madrid) are one of the most technically gifted players. The temperamental Ribéry has the unique ability to split defences by cutting in through either of the wings. His partnership with Arjen Robben for Bayern Munich was a spectacle to watch. The French team needs Ribéry, the most capped player in the current squad, to take more responsibility to take the team beyond the quarter finals. Karim Benzema has improved immensely as an out-right striker under the guidance of Carlo Ancelotti and French legend Zinedine Zidane while playing for Real Madrid.
With less than a month left for the tournament, the French team is again hitting the headlines for all the wrong reasons. The exclusion of Samir Nasri from the squad prompted his girlfriend to go all out against the current coach. In spite of Nasri’s exclusion, the 23- man squad contains some of the finest players of Europe. The French team is unlikely to face any problems against Switzerland, Ecuador or Honduras in the group stage and should top the group. The recent 2-0 victory against Netherlands is a positive sign for the team. With a few international friendlies remaining against Norway, Paraguay and Jamaica, Didier Deschamps has a very difficult task at hand – that of carrying the form displayed against the Netherlands in to the World Cup.
The Swiss will be participating in the FIFA World Cup, 2014 for the 10th time, but they have never been able to come up with a strong team that could survive till the latter stages of the tournament. The last time they reached the quarter-finals of the World Cup was way back in 1954, when it was played in their own backyard. . The story is the same this time around. Although they are the only team in Group E who reached the finals pretty easily by topping their Qualifying Group, things are going to become extremely difficult here on.
Switzerland was placed in the UEFA Group E for 2014 World Cup Qualifying round with Iceland, Slovenia, Norway, Albania and Cyprus. They remained unbeaten throughout the qualifying round, thanks to a strong defensive line up. They won seven and drew three matches scoring 17 goals and conceding only 6, out of which they let in four in a single match against Iceland during a crazy 4-4 draw. Barring the match against Iceland, the Swiss conceded only 2 goals in 9 matches. They even defeated the Brazilians in a friendly in 2013, displaying how much they have improved.
The Swiss team is led by Gökhan Inler under the guidance of the German, Ottmar Hitzfeld, still considered the all-time best coach of the Bayern Munich. Hitzfield won 18 titles as a player and coach. This is his swansong tournament. Hitzfield has been the coach of Switzerland since 2008. The faith shown by the management towards Hitzfield provided stability and was instrumental in building a decent team which is at present ranked 8th in the FIFA Rankings. The 23- man squad has been greatly influenced by the U-17 World Cup winning team of 2009 and the runners-up team of the Euro U-21 Championship. Ricardo Rodriguez, Haris Seferovic were part of the 2009 U-17 squad and Xherdan Shaqiri, Yann Sommer, Admir Mehmedi were part of the 2011 U-21 squad. Granit Xhaka is the only player of the current squad who was part of both the U-17 2009 and U-21 2011 team.
Diego Benaglio (Wolfsberg) will be the first choice keeper. The central defence will be managed by Philippe Senderos (Valencia) and Johan Djourou (Hamburger SV) with Steve von Bergen (Young Boys) as a reserve. Both Snederos and Djourou have been playing for a very long time in England, Spain, Italy and Germany. The left-back and right-back position will have Ricardo Rodríguez (Wolfsburg), Reto Ziegler (Sassuolo) or Stephan Lichtsteiner (Juventus).
The Swiss boasts of a decent midfield led by Gökhan Inler (Napoli). Inler has been a key member of the Napoli side helping them to a third place finish in the Serie A along with the Coppa Italia triumph. The other players in the fray are Valon Behrami (Napoli), Granit Xhaka (Borussia Mönchengladbach) and the highly rated Xherdan Shaqiri (Bayern Munich). Both Behrami and Barnetta are experienced campaigners who have played at the highest level. Xherdan Shaqiri is the one to look out for. He has been rated as one of the most promising talents in Europe. He plays as a winger for Bayern Munich and is known for his creativity and speed.
The forward line is of average quality consisting of Admir Mehmedi (Frieburg), Mario Gavranović (Zurich), Haris Seferović (Real Sociedad) and Josip Drmić (Bayer Leverkusen). Drmić’s 17 goals in his first season with Nurnberg earned him a new five-year contract with Bayer Leverkusen. Out of the 17 goals scored in the qualifying round only three were scored by the strikers. Centre-back Fabian Schaer was the team’s top scorer with three goals. Given the quality of the strike force, the Swiss will probably play a single striker Drmić upfront with five in the midfield giving them more freedom to display their creativity. This team may be the strongest team ever in Swiss history. Under the able guidance of Hitzfield, Switzerland has everything to play for. They have a great chance in qualifying for the knock out stage, but will find it very difficult there on. A second place finish in the group is the most likely scenario, which will bring them face to face with Argentina in the round of 16.
Ecuador is one of the lesser known football playing nations from South America. They qualified for the tournament for the very first time in 2002 and their best ever performance saw them reaching the round of 16 in 2006. The 2014 World Cup will be their third time in the tournament. La Tri does not boast of any famous name of world football. Many players are from the domestic league. A few play in Mexico, Colombia and the MLS. The only known face is that of their captain — Antonio Valencia of Manchester United. However, this Ecuadorian side has made a name for themselves for their grit and determination. They prefer a more direct approach to the game using their physical strength as the most potent weapon. They fought hard in the qualifying rounds in the CONMEBOL group and finished fourth ahead of the reigning Copa America champions Uruguay on a better goal difference. Ecuador started their qualifying campaign with two wins and two losses out of the first four matches, but quickly turned things around with a string of good performances and remained unbeaten in six consecutive matches winning four of them. Suddenly they found themselves second in the group. However, they lost momentum and could not win any of the next four matches while losing two. A difficult 1-0 win against Uruguay in the penultimate match of the qualifying round ensured their qualification. In a recent international friendly against a strong Netherlands side, they drew 1-1.
Besides Valencia, the responsibility of the Ecuadorian midfield will be shouldered by Christian Noboa (Dynamo Moscow) and Jefferson Montero (Morelia). Frickson Erazo, in the defense has made a name for himself with his strong performance for Ecuador and was rewarded with a transfer away to Flamengo in the Brazilian League. The defensive line up also has veterans like Walter Ayoví and Jorge Guagua. The forward line will be spearheaded by Felipe Caicedo (Al-Jazira). Caicedo is a decent striker who had a stint with Manchester City between 2008 and 2011. During this period he was mostly loaned out to a few clubs in Spain and Portugal.
Ecuador could not win a single match away from home. But this is a group which does not have a clear favorite. So, with a little bit of luck, plus the advantage of playing in home continent – they might just cause an upset or two.
The Central American nation of Honduras will be playing their third World Cup in Brazil, 2014. They qualified from the CONCACAF finishing third ahead of the Mexicans. The 2001 third place finish in the Copa America was just the beginning of a major shift in attitude towards football in Honduras. In the following years, they consistently reached the semi-finals of the CONCACAF Gold Cup, won the Copa Centroamericana in 2011, finished runners-up in 2013 and finished as the champions of the Central American Games in 2013. Luis Fernando Suárez was given the responsibility of the Honduras national football team in 2011. Los Catrachos started their World Cup 2014 qualifying campaign from the CONCACAF third round where they topped their group convincingly. They found themselves amongst United States, Costa Rica, Mexico, Panama and Jamaica in the fourth round from which the top three teams had an opportunity to qualify directly. Honduras started on a positive note defeating The United States and drawing against Mexico. They were inconsistent throughout their qualifying round and finished with four wins, three draws and three losses out of 10 matches. They scored 13 goals and conceded 12. The highlight of the qualifying round was the 2-1 win against Mexico in Azteca.
10 players in the 23-man squad play in the domestic league. The few known faces in the Honduras defensive line up are Maynor Figueroa (Hull City), Emilio Izaguirre (Celtic) and Juan Carlos García (Wigan Atheletic). Emilio Izaguirre features regularly in the Celtic team as left back and was named as the Premier League Player of the Year in 2011.
The midfield consists of Wilson Palacios (Stoke City), Roger Espinoza (Wigan Athletic) and the experienced Óscar García (Houston Dynamo). Both Espinoza and Palacios play as defensive midfielders, whereas Garcia prefers the role of a winger.
The forward line up consists of Carlo Costly (Real Espana), Jerry Bengtson (New England Revolution), Jerry Palacios (Alajuelense) and Rony Martínez (Real Sociedad). Jerry Bengtson and Jerry Palacios are the favourites for the starting eleven.
Suarez made a name for himself by helping the Ecuadorian side reach two consecutive World Cups in 2002 and 2006. He has the ability to transform lesser known teams into a formidable force. With Honduras, he followed a simple 4-4-2 formation with a direct approach keeping a compact midfield and defense. In the 2010 World Cup in South Africa, they were knocked out of the group stage with two losses and a draw. They conceded thrice and could not score a single goal. Honduras is still in search of their first win in the World Cup. The kind of progress they have shown in the recent times, a series of spirited performances may take them to the knock out stage.
France and Switzerland are best positioned to finish the group as first and second. Switzerland may face some stiff challenge from Ecuador. It will be very difficult for Honduras to finish ahead of France, Switzerland or Ecuador. Honduras may not be able to get past the group stage, but will greatly influence which two teams qualify from Group E. In the 1982 World Cup, Spain finished second in the group due to a draw against Honduras, whereas the Swiss were knocked out of the group stage in the 2010 World Cup due to a similar result. Group E has been paired with Group F where Switzerland may face Argentina. France may get a relatively easier tie (Nigeria/ Bosnia and Herzegovina) and are most likely to progress to the quarter final stage where their campaign may end against Germany.
Switzerland and Honduras have again been drawn in the same group just like in 2010. It was a drab goalless draw, a game to forget. And that which sent the Swiss home packing after so much of early promise.
Ecuador’s World Cup spot sealing victory against Uruguay was dedicated to key forward Christian Benitez, who died suddenly in July from heart failure.
The Journey Continues for France
Laurent Blanc becomes one more casualty at the altar of moulding a temperamental bunch of Les Bleus. Ogo Sylla reports on what failed him
It has been six years now since the World Cup 2006 final and France still seem to be struggling to make any real headway in international tournaments. Of course, this may be a harsh view, and a more clement judge might offer some kudos to Laurent Blanc’s side for being the first to have progressed beyond the group stages of an international competition since that fated final in Germany. Beyond such a raw analysis, however, Les Bleus have made very little headway as a team, given their image at home.
Les Bleus under Laurent Blanc played as a completely different outfit from when Raymond Domenech was in charge. Blanc did away with the double-pivot midfield and switched to a 4-3-3 which looked to impose itself technically and open up the pitch. Blanc had often openly expressed his admiration for the Spanish style of play, which was the platform of his discourse upon his appointment and the cornerstone of his projet de jeu (project/style of play).
France opened their Euro 2012 campaign against England, where after completely dominating the match, they could only manage a 1-1 draw. They went on to perform much better though in their second match against tournament hosts, Ukraine, handily brushing them aside in the second half-scoring two quality goals. With four points in the group, it would have taken a miracle for France to get out of the groups and a win against Sweden would secure them top spot. It was perhaps that complacency which saw them fall 2-0 to an inspired and spirited Swedish team. This defeat did not prevent France from securing a quarter-final berth although it did allow England to top the group putting an end to its 23-match unbeaten run under Blanc’s reign. A defeat, ill-timed indeed, as Les Bleus would find themselves pitted against the defending champions, Spain in the next round.
Though France had not been the most convincing of teams so far, it certainly showed that Blanc’s projet de jeu had taken hold. Yohan Cabaye was the surprise package and standout player of this French side, as well as symbol of Blanc’s vision: technically gifted, good range of passing, and generous in his contributions on the pitch in terms of team ethics. Franck Ribéry went through a bit of a metamorphosis throughout this Euro. The Bayern München winger had become a prominent hate figure amongst many French fans following his involvement in the Knysna ‘bus of shame’ incident at the 2010 World Cup in South Africa. However, he entered this competition with an irreproachable attitude. Ribéry worked hard for the team and was one of the few consistent and dangerous players on the team. The one individual, who really disappointed both Blanc and the fans, was unquestionably France’s star player: Karim Benzema. The French striker was coming off his best season with Real Madrid and had really matured as a player under Jose Mourinho. However, he showed none of that during the Euro, with only two assists (against Ukraine) to his name.
Besides the players though, we also have to assess Blanc and how he managed the team during the Euro. This was Blanc’s first international competition in a young coaching career and this was always going to be a great challenge for the Frenchman. We already mentioned the impressive 23-match unbeaten run Blanc oversaw and how his vision seemed to be finally taking root. Irrespective of the many positives about Blanc’s tenure, there were some negatives as well that many a fan found it difficult to come to terms with. One of them was his deployment of Benzema as a no.9 and his refusal to partner him with Ligue 1 top-scorer, Olivier Giroud. One of Benzema’s main issues as a striker is that he often evacuates the penalty area to link up deeper in midfield. In fact, the striker is more of a neuf-et-demi (nine-and-a-half) and benefits from the presence of a certain Cristiano Ronaldo (in Real Madrid) who fills that space up front when Benzema drops deeper. So Blanc’s system with Benzema operating as a no.9 left the penalty area unguarded. The issue is all the more aberrant when we consider how simply the solution could have been implemented with Giroud or even Jeremy Menez who could have emulated Cristiano Ronaldo’s movement in the final third (when we consider that Carlo Ancelotti played him as a no.9 in the final stages of his season with PSG).
Blanc’s greatest failing, however, came during the fated quarter-final against Spain. The problem is not so much the loss to the most dominant international side of our generation, but Blanc’s decisions during this penultimate game. Against Spain, Blanc attempted to counteract the Andres Iniesta threat down La Roja’s left flank by playing with two right-backs: Mathieu Debuchy and Anthony Réveillère. Now there’s nothing too scandalous about this except when we consider the fact that Blanc also stationed a defensive midfielder, Yann M’Vila, slightly to the right of midfield for further reinforcement. It became all the more ironic when both full-backs were beaten and found themselves unable to stop Jordi Alba’s cross from the left which Xabi Alonso turned in for the opening goal.
The more pertinent point though, besides Blanc’s over-cautiousness in his fixation to seal Iniesta, was what his choices on the day let transpire. It had nothing to do with sending the wrong message to his team. It had more to do with going completely counter to his whole projet de jeu. After berating the English for having refused to play and defending throughout the game against France, Blanc turned around and did just the same. After stating that he wanted a team that imposed its style and that did not react or change its style regardless of the opponent, Blanc did just the opposite. Two years at the helm of Les Bleus, yet it was this incoherence which made Blanc’s entire work come to naught. In fact, in this single game against Spain, Blanc willingly and effectively threw away his entire projet de jeu and was unceremoniously thrown out of the Euro for it.
It’s difficult to come away with many positives regarding Les Bleus’ exit from Euro 2012. Besides the 23-match unbeaten run and France managing to come out of the group stages of an international competition, we are really left grasping at straws. One could point out that France did also manage to win its first match in an international competition (France 2-0 Ukraine) since the 2006 World Cup, but at this point it somewhat sounds like a backhanded compliment.
One of the alarming things from it all is that Blanc has failed in his operation to bring the team any closer to the hearts of the supporters. Whether it was the team’s performance against Spain or off-field incidences like Samir Nasri along with a few others publicly taking on the media and causing a rift in the dressing room, there has been a clear disconnect. Nasri, Jérémy Menez, Yann M’Vila, and Hatem Ben Arfa have all been summoned before a disciplinary commission of the French Football Federation (FFF). Blanc even stepped down from his post following a strained relationship with FFF president, Noël LeGraët. Didier Deschamps is in LeGraët’s line of sight but the former Marseille coach has reportedly temporarily rebuffed the FFF president’s feelers. Of course, Deschamps’ agent, Jean-Pierre Bernès – who is also Blanc’s agent – could become a sticking point in any negotiation knowing LeGraët’s apprehension of the super agent’s closeness to the FFF organization.
Today France finds itself without a coach, is out of another major competition and has sullied their public image before their own fans and the international public. Despite all the talk about Domenech having been a national pariah and Blanc the supposed saviour of French football, the Les Bleus haven’t really climbed out of the trough in the past two years.
Ibra shows his class as Les Bleus scrape through
Sweden vs France 2-0 (Ibrahimovic, Larsson,)
France, ever since their runner-up finish in the 2006 WC final, a match many believe they should have won, has not made big in any tournament they have played in. And the reasons are aplenty – complacence, a generation shift, lack of killer instinct, inability to win crucial moments in matches. All the reasons were on display against Sweden against whom they put up, to put it mildly, a mediocre performance. That they were still able to make it through is due to some luck, as England did not lose to hosts Ukraine
On the other hand, Zlatan Ibramohovic played probably his last Euro Cup match, and left in a blaze of glory, scoring in the 56th minute with a magnificent volley from the edge of the box. Yes, Sweden in the end managed to win just 1 match and finished 4th, but there is a feeling that had they finished better, they might as well have won all their matches and finished group champions. Ukraine’s departure on the other hand, kept the issue alive – should UEFA allow only 1 country to host Euro, and let a 15th team qualify?
Ever since Zizou left, many say France lack a leader – a leader like Diego or a Klinnsman, a man with a halo around his head, a man around whom legends can be woven. And on the night, they started off soporific, with a blunder as early as the 3rd minute when Olsson floated a cross into the French Box and Mexes and Clichy stood admiring it. A few minutes later, Ribery shot a weak one into Isaksson with only the goalie to beat. Ben Arfa seemed unable to recover from a shock that he was actually in the starting line-up and ran around a bit before hitting an aimless one over the bar. France’s pathetic half was rounded off when Nasri kicked himself as Benzema had come down to retrieve balls himself.
In the second half, after some lazy display upfront from Les Bleus, Sweden counter-attacked, and one of them produced the gem of the night – Ibra scoring off Larssen’s cross, and Lloris didn’t even get a finger to it. In the meanwhile, Rooney had scored for England, and France had taken their first steps to meet La Rojas in their next round. Nasri was finally replaced by Menez, a risk, considering Menez is on a yellow card, and this brought some purpose upfront as France stormed the Swede citadel in search of an equalizer. However, the Swedes got their second against the run of play as Wilhelsmson first won a free kick and then hit the post, the rebound seeing Larsson putting it into the net.
What next for the teams
Sweden will go back after having restored some confidence with a win vs. 1998 World Cup winners. They will need all that and more – after all their next opponents the team France beat in the 1998 final – Brazil. France scraped through, and plays a team in red hot form – Spain. However, they will need to play way better than they did vs. Sweden to fancy their chances against overwhelming favorites and the defending champions. And Blanc must rethink his strategy when he keeps on saying he won’t play a 4-4-2 formation, because at the end of the tournament, he might still remain the last batch of Frenchmen to win a big trophy.
Sweden (4-4-2): Isaksson, Granqvist, Mellberg, J. Olsson, M. Olsson, Svensson, Kallstrom, Larsson, Ibrahimovic, Bajrami, Toivonen.
France (4-3-3): Lloris, Debuchy, Rami, Mexes, Clichy, Nasri, Diarra, M’vila, Ben Arfa, Benzema, Ribéry
“Right now I have quite mixed feelings. We should be content after today’s victory; we were up against a strong team, because they hadn’t been beaten in 23 games. This shows what we were up against. We gave an incredibly good performance. We created a small margin which we perhaps didn’t in the matches before, and you need those in order to win matches.” – Erik Hamren
“We need to stay optimistic; we didn’t make things easy for ourselves. It is not the easiest thing to play Spain at the moment, we have to be rested and need a really good performance to beat them.”- Laurent Blanc
French Quality Too Much for the Hosts
Ukraine 0-2 France
(Jeremy Menez 53, Yohan Cabaye 56)
France weathered a violent storm to defeat Ukraine at the Donbass Arena. Torrential downpour altered the game for almost an hour but play resumed as the fans were treated to a spectacle.
Surprisingly, Oleg Blokhin made no changes to his starting line-up. Nazarenko dropped deep to pair with Tymoshchuk in front of the defence. Voronin who was stationed behind Shevchenko had Konoplyanka and Yarmolenko on either side of him operating on the flanks. Laurent Blanc switched from the 4-3-3 formation he employed in his team’s opener against England to a more effective 4-2-3-1. In the defence, Clichy was brought in to replace Evra on the left and in attack, Nasri replaced Malouda. Nasri though was moved from his flank role against England to the middle where he orchestrated play behind Benzema.
The game began amidst the rains and the first moment of drama took place during the national anthems via a sudden clap of thunder. After five minutes, Dutch referee took the bold step to halt play when the rains had aggravated to pelting on the playing surface. The close proximity between the lightning and the thunder was enough to instigate a precautionary measure by Dutch referee Bjorn Kuipers. The worst of the storm passed and in no time the waterlogged pitch was effectively drained.
Play restarted and Ukraine did just enough to assimilate France’s attacking pressure. The guileful French attackers roamed the pitch switching positions at different times. Benzema cut inside and had a pop from distance to test Pyatov who comfortably palmed the ball away. Both teams continually found a lot of space on the counter. On 15 minutes, Benzema did well to get in between the two centre-backs and knocked the ball back with a header but no team mate made a run towards the ball. A minute later, Menez got on the end of a delightful pass from Samir Nasri and wasted no time in slotting the ball at the back of the net. The linesman’s flag came to Ukraine’s rescue as the goal was ruled offside. A motivated Ukraine kept France at bay with a series of strong challenges. The Ukraine defence being mean to Benzema in particular. On 26 minutes, Ribery robbed Nazarenko of the ball but his pull-back to Menez was laid to waste by the Paris Saint-Germain attacker. Tymoshchuk’s misguided pass in the 28th minute found Ribery who burst down the left. His intercepted cross for Benzema fell straight to Menez but the goalkeeper made a brave block to keep the score level. Talisman Shevchenko had his chance in the 33rd minute. His shot from an angle did little to disturb Hugo Lloris. Minutes later, an intervention by Phillipe Mexes spared Benzema’s blushes. Mexes’ header forced an excellent save from Pyatov before the break.
Oleg Blokhin made half-time changes to his team, Marko Devic replacing Andriy Voronin. France started the second half strongly and a couple of last-ditch interceptions prevented them from going in front. Shevchenko’s powerful shot missed the target by inches as the Ukranians delivered a threat from a counter-attack. France took the lead through Menez on the 53rd minute. Benzema’s pass to him was expertly controlled before firing a low shot into the bottom right corner of the post. End-to-end stuff ensued as a result. The Ukrainians came out to find an equaliser but they were punished as Les Blues got a second goal from Yohan Cabaye. Benzema again was the provider, He dazzled away from his marker to thread a ball into the path of Cabaye whose shot whistled past the helpless Pyatov. The goal demotivated the Ukrainians and France became in total control. Cabaye hit the post amongst a flurry of chances for France but the scoreline stayed 2-0. The full-time whistle was accompanied by a chorus of boos from supporters of the home side.
POST MATCH THOUGHTS
The result leaves Ukraine with three points, one short of England and France who top the group meaning they can still qualify mathematically. It’s an extremely unlikely scenario though for the reason that they face a more superior England side in the final group game. Oleg Blokhin’s side need to play through Shevchenko more often if they are to have any chance of qualifying. They also need to work on their finishing seeing that they wasted a lot of chances in this one. They only had a shot on target out of nine tries. France on the other hand will be brimming with confidence after a dominant display. Laurent Blanc’s change from 4-3-3 to 4-2-3-1 proved effective so he is expected to stick with that in subsequent matches. Alou Diarra once again bossed the midfield was and was a rock in front of the defence. He started in France’s first game due to injury to Yann M’Vila but now he is close to indispensable. Expect Laurent Blanc to preserve faith in him. France face Sweden in their last group game, a win which is very feasible as the Swedes are the whipping boys of the group with no points to their name.
“I warned the lads that the match against Sweden meant little. Some of the players were thinking they were already in the quarter-finals.” – Ukraine Manager, Oleg Blokhin on Ukraine’s loss.
“Ménez has a quality that none of Ribéry, Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa or Mathieu Valbuena truly possess. He has the speed and the power to run in behind and hurt defences. That’s a rare quality.”- France Manager, Laurent Blanc showering praises on Menez.
Traditional Rivals renew Euro Rivalry
Group D: France vs England
Monday, 11 June 2012
1800 (local time); 1200(EST); 21.30(IST)
Donbass Arena, Donetsk
Zinedine Zidane will always come to one’s mind whenever you think of an France vs England encounter and that too in an Euro clash. Eight years back, England were so close to a win in that pulsating encounter in Estadio da Luz but only to be denied by an injury time Zizou magic. However, lot have happened after that encounter in between 8 years. Le Blues have experienced the crest of success in in becoming Runners –up in WC 2006 as well as ignominious episode of the WC 2010. England on the other hand has continued to be perennial under achievers in International scenes. Coming to the Euro 2012, both sides have contrasting preparations. France FA made whole sale changes to their National team after their debacle in the WC 2010. Laurent Blanc was installed as the Manager. Slowly but steadily, Blanc have been able to mould the team in his philosophy which that insists on playing attacking football with a balance at the back. He has brought a discipline in the team that was severely missing under previous manager. Compared to that, the preparations of England team have been nothing sort of messy. After successful ly securing qualification for the Euro, Fabio Capello was preparing to erase the memories of an disappointing campaign WC 2010 with a strong performance in the Euro 2012. Then the John Terry saga happened when the National Captain was charged for racially abusing his fellow opponent. Although Capello stood by his Captain, the FA had to act to against Terry and stripped him of captaincy. This led to a collision between capello and the FA and eventually Capello resigned. After months of speculation, FA made the bizarre selection of Roy Hodgson as the manager barely 2 months before the Euro. Whether this is a correct or wrong selection, time will only tell but for any manager, it is next to impossible to get the best performance out of his team in such a short time. Things have become complex for Roy as he has lost 3 key players due to injury that includes Frank Lampard, Gareth Barry and the ever reliable Gary Cahill, add to that the suspension of Wayne Rooney who must have been a vital part of Roy’s plan. However all these things have given rise to a never –seen –before situation, the English press haven’t been that vocal about the chances of the team in the tournament .A low expectation can be conducive to English team’s performance in the tournament.
France qualified for the Euro 2012 as group champions seeing off a stiff competition from Bosnia. In the build up to the Euro, they have played quite balanced football albeit against lesser opponents like Estonia. The players are also coming off good individual domestic seasons which will give them an added advantage.
England also emerged as Group champions in their qualification campaign which was quite an easier group. However their performances in the friendlies, leading to Euro, have been quite below par. Under new captian Steven Gerrard, the team seems to be finding their way forward.
Teams & Formations
Blanc after a lot of experimentations in the last two years seems to have found the right balance. Upfront, Benzema is raring to prove his worth for the National team. He will be backed by the attacking trio of Nasri , Ribery and Malouda with the excellent Cabaye and Diarra marshalling the midfield. However loss Eric Abidal can be important as the defence will be a concern for the Le Blues.
France : LLoris; Adil Rami, Patrice Evra, Mathieu Debuchy, Phillip Mexes; Cabaye,Alou Diarra; Nasri, Malouda, Ribery ; Benzema
Roy Hodgson will set out his team based on solid defensive organization that will try to hit opponents on counter. A lot will depend on how John Terry will lead the defensive line and Steven Gerrard will operate the midfield. Given their respective club forms, Danny Welbeck will start as the only striker over Andy Carrol and Jermaine Defoe. It is to be seen whether Alex Oxlade Chamberlain can prove to be a sensation for the Three Lions.
England : Hart; Glen Johnson, Jolean Lescott, John Terry, Ashley Cole; Scott Parker, Steven Gerrard; Alex Oxlade Chanberlain, Ashley Young, James Milner; Danny Welbeck
Don’t worry! The English will show up ready for us. They always want to win and even more so against the French.
France coach Laurent Blanc
We’ve all got to turn up and we’ve all got to perform well at the right time. There’s no point one or two turning up or you’ll go home early.
England Captain Steven Gerrard
Les Bleus Look to Turn It Around
The French were humiliated both on and off the ground in the 2010 World Cup. Ogo Sylla reports on if Euro 2012 is the right tournament to expect a new journey.
Much to my surprise, Les Bleus are coming into EURO 2012 without much fanfare. The French fans and media have become quite disillusioned about their team of late. There was the fiasco of the “bus of Naisna” during the World Cup in South Africa, when the team
revolted against their coach Raymond Domenech. Laurent Blanc thus stepped in, after a successful three years with Bordeaux, where he brought Les Girondins to a second place finish in his first season, then to a first title since a decade as well as a Coupe de la Ligue, and capped it all off with a quarter-final berth in the UEFA Champions League. More so than his successful CV in the early days of his managerial career – when he won the Ligue 1 manager of the year award – Laurent Blanc was a symbol of the much-adored ’98 golden generation that had won the World Cup on home soil. As such, “Le President” (as Laurent Blanc came to be affectionately nicknamed during his stint with Olympique de Marseille) came into the France job with much credit in the bank.
What are France’s real expectations however for the upcoming EURO 2012? According to the French media, a quarter-final berth and according to the French supporters, not even that much. Indeed such pessimism is baffling when you consider the quality of the squad on paper. In every department France has enough to rival the nations being touted as favourites for the EURO 2012.
The solidity & depth of France’s squad is probably best illustrated in its options both in the goalkeeping and fullback options. With Hugo Lloris as the no.1 choice and Steve Mandanda as the backup, Les Bleus possess two world-class custodians who both boast confidence, presence, and quality to single-handedly influence games. The pot is all the more sweetened when you consider that the third option could be Bordeaux’s Cédric Carasso, Saint-Etienne’s Stéphane Ruffier, or even Rennes’ young Benoît Costil.
At the fullback area, it is sad to note that Bacary Sagna will miss out due to the recent leg-break the right-back has suffered. However, Mathieu Debuchy has had a great season for Lille and proven to be one of Europe’s best fullbacks. Of course the loss of Sagna is a blow, but it does leave the door open to Anthony Réveilleère (Lyon) and Christophe Jallet (PSG). The Lyon fullback is more experienced than his PSG counterpart , and so Réveilleère is expected to get the nod as he is a safer bet. On the left, Patrice Evra and Gaël Clichy remain strong choices despite the loss of Eric Abidal, with even Valencia’s Jérémy Mathieu as a wildcard candidate to make the list.
The France midfield is an interesting one to look at as well. In that department, France is blessed with a plethora of great and promising holding midfielders. However, I suspect that Blanc will go with the usual men he picks and trusts. The first name on the list is sure to be Alou Diarra, who was the captain of Bordeaux during Blanc’s stint as manager. Diarra has had a difficult start of his season since his move to Olympique de Marseille. His performances have greatly improved recently, but the 30-year-old is still some distance away from his Bordeaux form. Despite this, I believe Blanc will pick him, as he kept picking him even during his worst spell with Marseille when the whole of the French fans berated him for it. The other obvious pick will be Yann M’Vila, another favourite of Blanc. Despite a really poor season by his standards, it is unlikely for M’Vila to miss out on the EUROs. M’Vila’s dip in form has mostly been due to fatigue and being overplayed. And indeed it would almost be strange to pick M’Vila when you consider that Rio Mavuba is the best holding midfielder in France, with Toulouse’s Étienne Capoue another interesting option albeit with much less experience at international level.
Of course the midfield is not only going to be comprised with defensive midfielders and this is where France’s issues are highlighted. Laurent Blanc likes/aims to play a possession-style game with a lot of movement and ball circulation. Yohan Cabaye and Marvin Martin are two players Blanc is quite fond of and who would be apt to implement his strategy. However Cabaye – despite the great seasons he has enjoyed with Lille and Newcastle – has never been able to carry that form for France and thus always been disappointing. Martin is the more alarming case. After a break-out season when he notched up 17 assists, he only has 5 this year. The dip in form correlating with a mooted transfer that never materialized, a coach he didn’t rate, and so another case of player-power where Martin’s lack of professionalism could have very easily cost him a place at this summer’s EUROs.
You might have noticed that we have not yet discussed France’s attack and central defense. The reason for that is simple, therein lay
all the problems. In attack, only Karim Benzema really jumps out. Moreover, we must consider where to play Benzema who can play as a neuf-et-demi (nine-and-a-half) or as an out-and-out striker. If Blanc opts for the former, then who should be the striker ahead of Benzema? Montpellier’s Olivier Giroud is the obvious choice today: Ligue 1 top-scorer with 19 goals and the skill-set and ability to do the job. However it is Giroud’s lack of experience at this level that is worrisome. He only counts three caps for Les Bleus, albeit one in an impressive win against Germany when he really showed his class. Of course the problem remains that, if not Giroud then who? Kevin Gameiro has had a poor season for his new club PSG this year alongside Guillaume Hoarau, to the point that Carlo Ancelotti does not even line them up anymore (which is pertinent considering they are the only two strikers at the club). Loïc Rémy looked to have cemented his place, but inopportune hamstring injuries and poor morale (due to a disastrous season from Marseille this year) makes it difficult to justify his place in the starting eleven today.
The central defence is yet another issue France needs to sort out. However it seems strange to mention this when considering some of the candidates Blanc has to choose from- Adil Rami, Philippe Mexès, Laurent Koscielny, Mamadou Sakho among others. The problem with the aforementioned names is that they were all in line to be picked but have all suffered dips in form, especially Mexès and Rami. Mèxes is no longer trusted by AC Milan coach Massimiliano Allegri and has effectively been phased out, with Mario Yepes taking his place in the pecking order. Rami had a blistering start to his Valencia career but has really fallen some ways since the rumours of an interest from Barcelona came about and destabilized him. Sakho’s form is the most alarming of the three, having strung along a series of very poor performances that led to Ancelotti freezing him out of the line-up. Indeed Sakho’s dip in form coincidentally manifested with the arrival of Ancelotti, as the French defender maybe failed to cope with the pressure of the Italian’s expectations. Koscielny is by far the most secure of the three mentioned above. As such, we might see possible surprise inclusions of the young Montpellier captain, Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, or even of Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane.
In the end however, Blanc has lost much of the credit and indeed popularity he had when he took the France job. His contractual saga, when he more or less threatened to quit if he was not signed on, only created more critics amongst the French fans. What further irritates Les Bleus fans however are the unfulfilled promises regarding Blanc’s projet de jeu (style of play). Indeed Blanc has often spoken of his admiration for the Spanish style and has made it his goal to emulate it with this team. However, France is quite some ways off from that and has not produced anything remotely close to it. Finally, but certainly not the least, is Blanc’s insistence to include Frank Ribéry in the team. Indeed Ribéry has a terrible reputation in France since the Naisna incident and many are simply calling for him not to be included in the EURO squad. In a way, an omission would be justified given that his performances for Les Bleus have always inexplicably been much poorer than for his club. But in another way as well, the Ribéry case is one that applies to many of Les Bleus’ players. Samir Nasri and Patrice Evra are the more notable examples. This issue has polarized the fans from the players, with the French public labeling them as nothing more than overpaid superstars who don’t care about playing for the shirt. This is France’s biggest stumbling block and challenge for Blanc at the EUROs indeed, to turn the hearts of the French people.
In conclusion, Blanc has a tough battle ahead of him. Le President has to not only win the hearts of the French people but also his team has to perform on the pitch. But then again, both are intrinsically linked and should follow through naturally. Blanc does boast of the ultimate ace-in-the-hole however- a transformed Benzema who possesses all the skills, maturity and leadership to bring this team to a semi-final berth at this summer’s EUROs.