Blanc's master plan starting to bear fruit
ARE you watching, Raymond Domenech?
The coach who presided over France's shambolic World Cup campaign does not have much else to do these days -- he has reported to an unemployment office while seeking compensation for his dismissal -- and must have been struck by the quality of his former charges' performance here on Saturday night.
France could have lost this Euro 2012 qualifying match during a nervous spell midway through the second half, but the spirit they showed in scoring two late goals, as well as the generally high standard of their play, belied their place at No 27 in the FIFA world rankings -- the lowest in the country's history.
Under Domenech, France failed to win a match in South Africa and returned in disgrace, the players having gone on strike during a training session in sympathy with Nicolas Anelka, who had been sent home.
However, the feeling remained that, individually, the players still had plenty to offer. All it required was a coach who had not lost the confidence and respect of his men. Step forward Laurent Blanc, a World Cup winner in 1998 and a French title winner as a coach with Bordeaux.
After a shaky start -- a friendly loss against Norway was followed by a home defeat against Belarus in their opening European Championship qualifier -- Blanc's team are coming good. Following victory away to Bosnia and Blanc's first home win here, France go into their next match against Luxembourg in Metz tomorrow as group leaders.
"We're starting to create something, it's starting to bear fruit," Blanc said. "There will be difficult times ahead. Qualifying is long, but for now we're going to savour this."
So far, Blanc has had to do without Anelka, Patrice Evra and Franck Ribery, who were given suspensions of 18, five and three matches respectively following the South African debacle, yet he still has plenty of talent at his disposal, especially in midfield.
Alou Diarra -- who may well become Blanc's long-term captain after being given the armband for a second time here -- and Yann M'Vila are highly effective holding midfielders, while there is an embarrassment of riches going forward. Samir Nasri started in the hole behind Karim Benzema before being replaced by Yoann Gourcuff, while Abou Diaby should be in contention to face Luxembourg after recovering from an ankle injury.
Benzema's display was in contrast to some of his apparently disinterested performances for Real Madrid. As he demonstrated with some of his smirking and monosyllabic replies at a press conference the day before the match -- you wondered whether Blanc had sent him to meet the media in punishment for reporting late for duty -- the 22-year-old striker is clearly a difficult player to handle.
However, there can be no doubting the former Lyon striker's talent. He led the line with authority, linking particularly well with Nasri, and played with a responsibility and commitment that will have impressed Blanc. But for the excellence of Cristian Chivu, Romania's one world-class player, Benzema would surely have added to his tally of nine goals for his country.
Instead it was left to Loic Remy and Gourcuff to provide the finishing touches. Remy's goal was a beauty, the young Marseille striker shooting inside the far post after a wonderful through-ball by Diarra, and he should have added a second but headed over from close range after a Florent Malouda cross. Gourcuff provided the final flourish, capitalising on a fine run by Dimitri Payet.
"The team did not give up," Blanc said. "They always believed they could win. I liked this spirit.
"It was a tough match. We didn't create really clear chances in the first half because Romania were well-organised and proved solid. I told my players a game wasn't finished after 60 minutes and that it wasn't forbidden to win it in the final 10 minutes."
Remy, Gourcuff and Payet had all come on as substitutes when France started to lose their nerve after failing to make their superiority tell.
Romania, who created little in the first half and spent most of the match on the retreat, had several opportunities in the second, the best of them falling to Ionut Sapunaru, whose shot cannoned against a post.
Blanc's one major concern may be in defence. Saturday's back-four not only lacked experience -- Philippe Mexes was the only player with more than 10 caps -- but also looked short of pace through the middle.
France could do with a central defender who reads the game well enough to sniff out danger before it arrives. Someone just like Laurent Blanc. (© Independent News Service)