Euro 2012: French optimism tempered by defensive concerns

Despite going into Euro 2012 on a 21-game unbeaten run, France's preparations for their opening Group D match with England here on Monday have been dogged by concerns about their defence.

Updated: June 09, 2012 18:58 IST
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Donetsk, Ukraine: Despite going into Euro 2012 on a 21-game unbeaten run, France's preparations for their opening Group D match with England here on Monday have been dogged by concerns about their defence.

On the surface, things appear under control.

France let in only four goals in their qualifying campaign - second only to Italy, who conceded two - and their last two warm-up matches saw them win 2-0 against Serbia before a crushing 4-0 defeat of Estonia on Tuesday.

However, the Serbia win was prefaced by a last-gasp 3-2 victory over Iceland in which France had to rally from two goals down and even in their subsequent victories, there have been moments of discomfort at the back.

Central to the unease about France's defensive solidity has been the form of Philippe Mexes.

Supposedly the leader of the French back four, he has appeared uncertain, and received a rating of 4/10 from sports newspaper L'Equipe for an error-strewn showing against the Estonians.

The 30-year-old was out for six months last year after damaging ligaments in his left knee while playing for Roma and despite returning to action with new club AC Milan, he flitted in and out of the team in the season's closing weeks.

Concerns have been raised in the French media that the former Auxerre centre-back is still carrying the weight he put on during his period of absence.

Laurent Blanc dismissed those suggestions earlier this week, asserting that Mexes' body fat was an acceptable 10 percent, but he conceded that France needed to tighten things up at the back.

"Defensive balance is the hardest thing to find," said the France coach.

"In qualifying, we could rely on a good defence and I hope that we'll rediscover our defensive performances. Because without a defence, we won't go very far in this tournament."

France's pre-tournament objective was to reach the quarter-finals but their impressive recent performances have lent credence to the notion that they could mount a challenge for the Henri Delaunay trophy.

Nonetheless, since a quarter-final exit at Euro 2004, France have won just one group game at a major tournament - against Togo at the 2006 World Cup - and the wounds of the 2010 World Cup debacle remain fresh.

To that end, Blanc has been keen to create a renewed sense of team spirit and the buoyancy in the French camp was evident during the match with Estonia, when even substituted players left the pitch with broad smiles on their faces.

The players also unfurled a banner at the end of the game - "THANK YOU! At the Euro, with you, for you!" - which provided a reminder of the need to win over fans still smarting over the Knysna training ground strike in South Africa.

For all their defensive cogitations, France looked slick and full of menace in attack in their last two friendly games, after Blanc reconfigured the team's formation to a 4-3-3 system that features only one true holding player.

Franck Ribery broke a three-year scoring drought with the equaliser against Iceland before claiming further goals against Serbia and Estonia, while Karim Benzema was on target twice in France's last warm-up game.

Olivier Giroud, the top scorer in Ligue 1 with Montpellier, has added a spark from the bench, meanwhile, creating three goals in his three substitute appearances.

Samir Nasri, now deployed on the right wing, is still to fully convince but Florent Malouda has added dynamism and know-how to the centre of midfield and his midfield colleague, Yohan Cabaye, is getting forward more and more.

Somewhat belatedly, France are starting to play the football that Blanc wants to see. England cannot fail to have noticed.

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