French squad, like that of 1998, was built around one star player. With Ribery out of the tournament, they are seriously lacking creativity.
Samir Nasri omission may come back to haunt Deschamps after Ribery’s injury
It is understandable Didier Deschamps chose to revisit France’s past as he was always the nostalgic choice to manage his country.
Deschamps, 45, may have piloted Monaco to the Champions League final and Marseille to the Ligue 1 title as a manager but it is hard to escape the 16-year-old image of the moment when he became the only France captain to hold the World Cup aloft.
The on-field general has become the strategist in the dugout, but Deschamps was always a thinking footballer whose influence lay partly in his personality.
Aime Jacquet’s first lieutenant borrowed from France’s World Cup-winning manager’s manual that was focused on building a side around a solitary star.
Jacquet was justified in spectacular style when Zinedine Zidane headed France to glory in 1998 but his earlier decisions to discard Jean-Pierre Papin, Eric Cantona and David Ginola were controversial.
Deschamps, disparagingly dismissed by Cantona as a “water carrier”, helped unite and organise the lesser talents who willingly accepted Zidane’s pre-eminence.
Fast forward to the present and Deschamps’ selections suggested Franck Ribery had a similar status in the current group. Samir Nasri was discarded and deemed disruptive, placing him as a modern-day Ginola.
The Manchester City midfielder pays rather more attention to his defensive duties than the former Tottenham Hotspur winger did, but it mattered not to Deschamps.
Now it might. Ribery’s back injury has ruled him out of the World Cup. Nasri was not even named on the standby list so Remy Cabella comes into the squad.
Marseille’s Mathieu Valbuena and Real Sociedad’s fast-improving Antoine Griezmann are the likeliest deputies for Ribery in the starting 11.
Both are fine players but neither is on a par with Ribery or, some might say, Nasri, let alone Deschamps’ most celebrated teammate.
When Zidane was suspended for France’s last-16 tie with Paraguay in 1998, his colleagues failed to supply the creativity.
France back then only had to negotiate two games without the inventor-in-chief. Now they have an entire World Cup.
With Ribery gone, Karim Benzema could become the face of the French campaign; at least, Deschamps may reflect, the class of 2014 has a superior striker to the 1998 victors, whose blunt spearhead was the non-scoring striker Stephane Guivarc’h.
Yet the context is not just supplied by the 1998 tournament, but also by the 2010 torment.
A group containing Honduras, Switzerland and Ecuador offers the promise of a comfortable passage to the knockout stages whereas four years ago, France’s fractious campaign ended early, although not early enough to prevent them from embarrassing themselves in front of a worldwide audience.
Nicolas Anelka was sent home in disgrace, the team refused to train and Raymond Domenech’s regime unravelled in spectacular style.
Factor in an awkward end to Euro 2012, when Nasri was banned by the French Football Federation for his post-match comments to journalists, and Deschamps’ decision to revive la France with some of its more solid citizens was grounded in both recent and distant history.
“He can keep everyone happy,” said Thierry Henry, a former teammate.
Minus Ribery, France’s strength may rest in their power. A central midfield trio of Paul Pogba, Blaise Matiudi and Yohan Cabaye boasts plenty of force, albeit augmented by some finesse.
A side that has only conceded once in four games ought to be hard to break down and, while Deschamps is yet to settle on his central-defensive duo, Raphael Varane and Eliaquim Mangala have the youth and potential to become the finest partnership in international football.
Behind them, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris is reassuringly reliable.
Factor in Benzema and Deschamps has the spine of a fine side. It is then a question of whether France have flair – something too few seem to offer – and if, in recent tradition, they self-destruct. The manager has taken an age-old approach to try to prevent that. It worked for Jacquet.
Yet the risk is that France end up lamenting the lack of an artist to complement the artisans.
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