What happens in Tirana, ‘hopefully’ stays in Tirana
Les Bleus put together a glorious first half, batting away demons that have haunted them on previous trips vs inferior teams. Too often in the past, technically superior French teams have had to battle for 1 nil victories or limp to draws. Blanc has been very outspoken in his desire to ‘free’ his players and get them enjoying their football again, with obvious hopes this would lead to flowing football and goals. That’s why I was surprised–and disappointed–he opted for 2 defensive midfielders. It seemed like Martin was sacrificed in order to bring Diarra in. I see the logic: try and match the Albanian muscle with some of our own and control the game through possession. It might be me, but I find this ‘possession strategy’ rarely works!
Of course, I had to eat my words for the first 20 minutes. France giving Albania problems straight away. Indeed, it looked like the offensive quartet of Benzema, Nasri, Malouda and Ribéry was going to be sufficient in controlling the game. I could hardly believe my eyes when France produced an early goal in the 11th minute. I can’t even remember the last time we scored so early. Of course, the man to deliver had to be Benzema. He’s more committed than ever and that combined with his technical awesomeness has made him unstoppable. In this instance, his determination got him the goal as he saw a first effort blocked, only for the ball to stick to his boots. He cut towards the top of the penalty area and rifled in another effort which the Albanian keeper Ujkani probably should have done better with, but hey–I’ll take it!
Things were too good to be true when France doubled that lead on 18 minutes. A wide ball to Benzema pushed him deep into Albanian territory between their box and the corner flag. He cut the ball back to M’Vila who was waiting at the top of the penalty box and he struck it so sweetly across goal that Ujkani could only watch as it hit the side netting. Magic!
France took their foot of the gas after that but did almost have a 3rd off a fiercely struck Ribéry free kick for which Ujkani redeemed himself by punching over.
However, if the half was say only a 7 or 8 out of 10 it’s because there are still some disturbing defensive lapses in concentration. Kaboul and Abidal were paired together for the 2nd time in a row but there are definitely some issues to be ironed out, more so with the Franco-Klingon then the Barcelona man. Directly after the 1st goal, Albania blazed up the pitch, bamboozled Kaboul but saw the resulting effort bounce of the post. Lloris then produced the first of several fine saves in the 31st minute.
Oddly, these defensive lapses didn’t extend to set pieces. France’s usual fragility in this sector has, at least on this occasion, been replace by solid, no-nonsense clearances.
The 2nd half started with another shocking lapse in concentration. You should never be allowed to score so quickly after the break, but there it was, France giving away their stranglehold on the game. Kaboul again was out of position and completely beaten by a long ball to the 34 year old Bogdani. His shot from inside the box squirted past Lloris and over the line. Ridiculous.
From then on, it was all Albania as France was constantly on the backfoot. And here is where I really have to call into question Blanc’s tactics of 2 DMs and the supposed stability they bring. They made zero difference. They played too deep, a result of Albanian pressure, and then could not provide enough support to Nasri, who was very, very isolated in the 2nd half. I certainly can’t see why M’Vila could not have handled the DM duties on his own. Surely, it would then make more sense to have another technical player like Martin out there (or Valbuena) to retain possession and attract fouls, thereby disrupting Albania. I definitely do not see what Diarra brings out there in this situation. It’s one thing if he was the lone DM, but seeing as M’Vila has surpassed him, he should be a backup.
Thankfully, Lloris was in top form. Maybe he reads FFW and saw my comments about him seeming a bit less confident in recent France games, because he was full of it tonight! Claiming set piece balls, punching away vicious efforts and in general covering up for Kaboul’s miscues. I said in my preview that he would need to be big in these 2 games and the way this game evolved was a reason why. He had a great reaction save in the 58th minute of a shot from Bulka. The shot swerved or was maybe lightly deflected, and Lloris saw it late but punched solidly away. Again in the 76th minute he punched a wicked free kick away.
At this point, a stat flashed up on screen indicating that for the last 15 minutes Albania had 86% of the possession. Great use those 2 DMs of ours are!
France did regain control in the last 10 minutes and it should have been at least 3-1. Kaboul–who is so good in the opposing box–saw his header hit the post. And a few minutes later, Nasri had his snapshot saved by Ujkani onto the post. But, once again, France failed to score more than 2 goals.
It’s a shame that what started out as such a promising–and perhaps defining–game turned out to be such a struggle. Malouda, who somehow managed to play 81 minutes, was invisible all game. I am really struggling to see what he brings to the table. Ribéry wasn’t great but was at least more involved. The fullbacks were poor, getting beat defensively and invisible going forward. If it weren’t for Benzema and Lloris it could have been very different. Hard to pick a man of the match between them, but Lloris was probably needed more tonight.
Looking forward to the Romania game, I can’t see Kaboul keeping his place. I want him to succeed because his strength can be such an asset, but at the moment he just seems a bit lost out there. The only question is how match fit Rami is. Sagna should return, which might stabilise things as well.
I’d really like see Valbuena or Martin in place of Diarra, but I think Blanc will look at the 3 points won, feel the job has been done (which it has) and play the same way. He will no doubt point to the opening 20 minutes as proof that the system can work but I think that is just masking things.
It’s obviously a welcome 3 points and combined with Bosnia’s win over Belarus puts France 3 points ahead–but the team will need to better in Bucharest on Tuesday night against what is a better Romanian side than Albania.
Lloris, Evra, Kaboul, Abidal, Reveillere, Diarra (c), M’Vila, Ribéry, Nasri, Malouda (Martin, 81), Benzema.