Despite a style of play that has not exactly filled the fans with enthusiasm, France go into the Euro 2012 finals as potential winners only two years after the fiasco that ruined their World Cup in South Africa.
A 2-1 win over Germany in Bremen in February showed Les Bleus, who were unbeaten in 20 games after a 2-0 win over Serbia last week, would definitely be a force to be reckoned with at the finals — even though some of their performances in the qualifiers left something to be desired.
“Everybody was a bit scared before the Germany game, and everyone has been pleasantly surprised by our match and by the result,” said France coach Laurent Blanc, who took over from Raymond Domenech after Les Bleus were knocked out in the group stage of the World Cup following off-the-field drama.
Domenech lost control of his squad in South Africa, with striker Nicolas Anelka being kicked out after insulting the coach at halftime in France’s 2-0 defeat to Mexico.
Almost two years later, the former world and European champions have regained their composure.
“It is nice to win in Germany, but we still have a lot of work to do to perform well,” Blanc said. “The victory in Bremen showed we are able to raise our level on one game, but I say one game. Whether we can do it throughout a competition is another question.”
Blanc’s first ambition is to win one game in a group featuring old foes England, Sweden and co-hosts Ukraine, who they demolished 4-1 in a friendly in Donetsk in June last year.
The Germany win obviously changed that, with France now expected to go through after recording victories against England, Brazil and Germany since the World Cup.
Although he has yet to find the perfect mix in midfield, Blanc has probably found his central defense, with Philippe Mexes expected to partner Adil Rami, baring injuries.
Mexes has partnered with the Valencia defender 11 times since the World Cup, in which France conceded six goals, including two in Blanc’s first outing, a 2-1 defeat against Norway, but France’s defensive record also owes a lot to cold-blooded goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, who has been named captain after a string of perfect performances both with Olympique Lyonnais and Les Bleus.
Blanc’s main concern may be the left flank, where Franck Ribery has been struggling to reproduce the form that made him an undisputed starter at Bayern Munich.
Up front, Blanc will be hoping that Karim Benzema will carry his Real Madrid form into the finals and he will also have Montpellier Herault’s Olivier Giroud, an in-form striker who finished as the top scorer in Ligue 1 with 21 goals.
Despite the positives though, France’s qualification for the finals was not without its worries.
They finished just one point clear of Bosnia at the top of their group, but the final group game — against Bosnia in Paris in October last year — did not go according to plan.
Bosnia took the lead before halftime and with 13 minutes to play, they were leading the group with France second, but that changed when Samir Nasri equalized for France from the penalty spot and that enabled France to draw and finish on 21 points to Bosnia’s 20.
That points tally was the lowest by any group winner in the six-team groups and it does hint at an inconsistency that may yet undermine their high hopes of emulating the 1984 and 2000 European Championship winning sides.