France come into Saturday’s Euro 2012 quarter-final clash with Spain with little optimism and although history is on their side, not even the staunchest French fans will feel confident ahead of the clash in Donetsk. The defending champions are expected to beat les Bleus easily given their sorry showing in their final Group D clash with Sweden where a dire France outfit succumbed to a 2-0 defeat on Tuesday. French boss Laurent Blanc has already admitted that his side face an uphill task.
So what can Blanc change that he hasn’t already tinkered with to spark his side into life? Firstly and most worryingly, striker Karim Benzema has still not found the net yet this tournament. In fact, only Jérémy Ménez has scored out of Blanc’s limited attacking options in his 23-man squad. The Paris Saint-Germain player though was dropped for the Sweden game depriving the side of his direct approach, something they will need if they are to find a way past Jordi Alba and Andrés Iniesta on the left side for the Spanish.
One way to ensure this without losing anything in terms of creativity is to consider finally playing Benzema as the number 10 with Ménez and Franck Ribéry either side of him utilising their pace to outflank opponents and profiting from Benzema’s natural tendency to take up a more withdrawn position that better suits him supplying goals instead of scoring them.
Without trying him there, Blanc will never know if Benzema can adequately fill Zinedine Zidane’s shoes as France’s new number ten but he will need a far more creative presence behind a predatory goalscorer like Olivier Giroud if he wants to reach the semi-finals. Florent Malouda started the tournament there but was quickly ousted as he looked off the pace and Samir Nasri is preferred in a wider role.
This leaves Blanc with two choices. Either he accepts Benzema’s preference to play the withdrawn role now when he still has a chance to achieve something in this tournament, or he risks benching him and disturbing the team chemistry or even worse, continuing with the same formula and reproducing the Sweden debacle.
On the bench Blanc has 21-goal Montpellier striker Giroud who has yet to really be tested this tournament despite a stellar season for the surprise Ligue 1 champions. A few cameo appearances as a substitute have been all that we have seen from the soon-to-be Arsenal striker, and Saturday night’s showdown could be the perfect place to demonstrate just how complete a player he is. Moreover, having him up front alongside Benzema could finally be the spark that the Real Madrid man needs to get his tournament rolling despite looking so good in the warm-up games.
A number of clever assists cannot paper over the cracks and disguise the fact that the former Lyon prodigy has looked shy in front of goal and has preferred to limit himself to shots from range and laying the ball on for his teammates. Giroud is also capable of providing assists but shows a more ruthless streak in front of goal, perhaps with him as the focal point of the attack les Bleus can find another gear. The 25-year old’s unselfish play can bring players like Ménez, Ribéry and Benzema into the game whilst he will also be the man to finish any chance put in front of him. With very little left to lose following the revelation of yet another internal squad conflict during an international tournament, Giroud could be Blanc’s saviour.
History is on France’s side, the last time the pair faced each other was in 2006 when France beat Spain en route to the World Cup final where they were defeated on penalties. Les Bleus’ victory over Ukraine was their first in a competitive international tournament since their semi-final victory over Portugal in that same competition. How France would love to roll back the years on Saturday and repeat their 3-1 victory over la Furia Roja, but it will be difficult without the instrumental ‘Zizou’ this time around.