France got their three match preparation for Euro 2012 off to a difficult start with a very late win against Iceland tonight in Valenciennes. Coming into the match unbeaten in 18 games, a good performance was expected against a young Iceland side which had suffered 10 defeats in their last 13 games.
Manager Laurent Blanc started with an offensive looking team, probably not too far from what was expected to be the starting XI for the match against England on 11 June, with the exception of Steve Mandanda filling in for a rested Hugo Lloris, Hatem Ben Arfa coming in for Franck Ribery and Yoann Gourcuff in for Yann M’Vila. Gourcuff was to be the focus of most people’s attentions, his inclusion in the preliminary squad of 25 the cause of much criticism. Blanc clearly appreciates the young midfielder – whose best performances came under Blanc’s stewardship at Bordeaux – and the manager was no doubt hoping for a strong performance, to make it easier to include him in the final 23.
France started brightly, Menez winning several free kicks down the left and a classy finish from Benzema, who was combining well with former Lyon teammate Ben Arfa, rightly disallowed for offside. However, Iceland began to get a foothold in the game and caught France cold with two goals in five minutes, midway through the first half. First Bjarnason capitalised on some non-existant defending from Mexes and Evra to half-volley past Mandanda. Then Gislason left Evra for dead on the left before crossing for an unmarked Sigthorsson to side-foot home.
The hosts left the pitch to deserved boos at half time, but gave a much better account of themselves in the second half, with Debuchy the surprising catalyst. On 52 minutes, another nice piece of link-up play between Ben Arfa and Benzema saw the latter’s shot deflect into the Lille full-back’s path, who tapped home. Laurent Blanc then rang the changes (Ben Arfa, Cabaye, Benzema, Nasri, Gourcuff and Menez replaced by Giroud, Diarra, Malouda, Martin, Ribery and Vabuena) and the substitutions were instrumental in France’s win – although not before Mandanda pulled off a great save from Hedinsson, after Bjarnason skipped all too easily past both Rami and Mexes.
Valbuena was inches away from scoring, before the equaliser came five minutes from time. A peach of a 1-2 between Ribery and Giroud ended with the Bayern Munich winger chipping the ball past the Iceland keeper and into the far corner. Then two minutes later the Valenciennes crowd were sent wild by Adil Rami, who powered home after a Mexes cross was expertly flicked on, again by Giroud.
France held on for the victory and left the pitch to a far better reception than 45 minutes earlier. However, Blanc will have a few issues to ponder before finalising his 23 man squad, expected to be announced on Monday evening or Tuesday morning.
Gourcuff did not do enough to repay his manager’s faith and may well be one of the two players sent home. But then Nasri was not particularly effective either and, whist Martin looked bright when he came on, his average season hardly suggests that he is ready to lead France into Euro 2012 as their main playmaker. This appears an area where les Bleus are short.
Left back is not an area where France is lacking. The reliable Mathieu and Tremoulinas have both been left out in favour of Clichy and Evra, with the latter seemingly assured of the starting berth, despite his role in the Knysna debacle in 2010. However, his performances for France since then have not been convincing and this was arguably a new low. It would not be a shock to see Clichy line up for France against Serbia on Thursday.
The other main cause for concern is in the centre of defence. Rami and Mexes had formed a strong partnership in Blanc’s early matches, and had conceded only 4 goals in 850 minutes together. However, a serious Mexes injury meant that they had not played together for some time and the Milan defender, captain for the night, looked particularly shaky. Blanc will no doubt persevere with his favoured partnership, but Mexes will need to improve. The centre back pairing could do with some good defensive cover in front of them and will welcome the solidity of M’Vila.
There are reasons to be cheerful. Debuchy has settled extremely well into the right back role and Ribery had his best game (and his first goal) for France for three years. Benzema and Ben Arfa immediately looked comfortable re-establishing their old Lyon understanding, with the Real Madrid striker looking every bit France’s talisman. And Giroud turned the game with two more assists, showing that a role as Benzema’s back-up is the least that he deserves, and perhaps tempting Blanc to find a way to fit them both into the same line-up.
In their defence, the players acknowledged that they were tired after intensive training sessions, and for those looking for omens, last time France played Iceland, they won 3-2 on the way to qualifying for Euro 2000, which of course ended in victory.
Friendlies can be tricky affairs – just ask the members of the Group of Death, none of whom mustered a win between them this weekend. There are elements that need to be worked on, but as Blanc said following the match, “it is better to win 3-2 with difficulty than with ease”, and the spirit developed amongst the squad in battling back from 2-0 down could prove invaluable in the next six weeks.