France Review: Rabiot Shows The Future’s Bright, The Future’s Bleu

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Doucement, doucement, attrape le singe?

I’m not convinced softly softly catchee monkey translates well into French, but in trying to find something to take away from France’s latest international double-header, the best I can come up with is that perhaps the benefits of two turgid matches will turn out to be slow-burners and good investment for the future.

Les Bleus began with the more meaningful match of the two, a 2-1 win against Sweden in an emotionally charged match which coincided with the anniversary of last year’s Paris attacks. It wasn’t the greatest of games and France were far from their best, but it’s always good for the confidence to come back from going a goal down. Starting the week level on points with the Swedes, France now top the group, three ahead of their opponents and of the Netherlands. So good progress on that front.

The major talking point before the Sweden match was the inclusion of 35-year-old Patrice Evra, who leapfrogged Lucas Digne into the first team in Layvin Kurzawa’s absence. Although this seems to be a minority view, I think that the inclusion was wrong. The Knysna baggage is irrelevant – the fact is that Evra is aging fast, has generally underperformed on the pitch for France and was more often than not a liability during Euro 2016. Against Sweden he was not stretched, but there is no reason why Digne could not have filled the role more than adequately. Having played for PSG and Roma and now (for the moment anyway) a regular starter for Barcelona, Digne is hardly green – and could certainly have been expected to perform better than, for example, Djibril Sidibe did at right back in both matches. Reviews of Digne’s performance against the Ivory Coast criticised him for being too timid going forward, to which I would venture: a) surely at left back it’s better to have a solid defender who is less sure going forward than Sidibe’s alternative of a defender who can pummel forward but can’t defend; and b) what do you expect when your confidence and position have just been undermined by being usurped by someone who has appeared more on Instagram than on a football pitch this season? And while we’re on that subject, am I really the only person who finds “Tonton Pat”’s “I love this game!” schtick tiresome? This isn’t The Fast Show or Harry Enfield. Since when do footballers need a bloody catchphrase? Has there ever been a more blatantly concerted campaign to angle for a job in the media post-retirement? Of course in today’s society it will work because the most odious people seem to do OK with a slogan (#MAGA #BuildtheWall #TakeBackControl etc). But if we must endure Evra continuing to be associated with the France squad because he is apparently so good for spirit, can we not just sew him into his bloody panda costume and use him as a pre-game mascot?

On to Tuesday night and the friendly with the Ivory Coast, which ended 0-0, had very little incident, but perhaps produced more talking points than last Friday, beginning with a moving tribute to the late Ivory Coast and Rennes striker Laurent Pokou and ending with “the great Lens fans” classily welcoming Sebastien Corchia on to the pitch for his France debut with a chorus of boos.

The last time France began a match with two debutants, the two newbies were Raphael Varane and Paul Pogba. It is unlikely that Benoit Costil, who made his bow in Bleu despite being fourth choice when the squad was first announced, will see much more game-time for France. If the match proves to be remembered for anything, however, it may turn out to be the start of a great France career for the second new starter, Adrien Rabiot. Still only 21 but with so much big-game experience already, Rabiot seemed unphased by the occasion, purring around the pitch and immediately looking at home. Also 21 as of this weekend, Thomas Lemar, too, made a good impression as he made his debut from the bench. Sadly Ousmane Dembele still looks a little overawed at international level, but his time will no doubt come. Nabil Fekir’s time, meanwhile, may pass unless he knuckles down and perhaps also loses a little weight.

As good as Rabiot was, he was overshadowed by the performance of Ngolo Kante, who excelled, breaking up and linking play and making a big point to Didier Deschamps, who has dropped him to accommodate his 4-2-3-1 formation. Blaise Matuidi should be worrying for his place on the left of midfield: Kante is breathing heavily down his neck, Pogba continues to mix the good with the bad and look a little wasted when he is on the right, and in Rabiot France has a far more cultured left-footed player now available.

Elsewhere, not much to add. Sissoko was Sissoko. Adil Rami did OK but Varane-Koscielny are untouchable in central defence, with Samuel Umtiti surely the number one back-up. Up front, Kevin Gameiro failed to pick up points but will still be in the reckoning thanks to his club partnership with Antoine Griezmann, while Olivier Giroud has long since earned his place in the squad, but can only work with what the likes of Pogba, Griezmann and Dimitri Payet provide him (which wasn’t that much this week).

So France’s big 2016 comes to an end with a record of 17 matches, 13 wins, 3 draws and only one defeat – in the one that mattered most. But overall, the squad still seems on an upward curve. If you really wanted to be entertained by a France team this week, you should have been watching the Bleuets’ 3-2 win over England. There are some exciting players of great potential coming through at all age levels for France right now and, while this week’s first team football was uninspiring, the future continues to look bright.

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