22nd June, 2012
DONETSK, Ukraine: The number of short, technically gifted midfielders in France’s squad bears testament to Laurent Blanc’s admiration for Saturday’s Euro 2012 quarter-final opponents Spain.
The Spaniards, reigning world and European champions, have risen to the summit of the sport with a game based on rapid passing moves, intuitive movement, and aggressive pressing of the opposition.
Since replacing Raymond Domenech at the France helm after the 2010 World Cup, Blanc has attempted to inculcate a similar approach and his squad is an eloquent demonstration of that ambition.
Blanc has only two genuine strikers at his disposal—Karim Benzema and Olivier Giroud—but can call upon a wealth of nimble creative midfielders such as Samir Nasri, Franck Ribery, Jeremy Menez, Hatem Ben Arfa and Marvin Martin.
He has tried to turn France into a side that dominates its opponents but he admits that on Saturday, his players will be up against the masters in that domain.
“If you manage to have more possession of the ball than Spain, it’d be an achievement,” said the France coach.
“In that area, they are very, very strong. It’s a style of football that I like. And not only is it nice to watch, but it’s efficient as well.
“The problem against Spain is that the players will have to be mentally prepared to run a huge amount and block the spaces as much as possible, even if they always manage to find space due to their quality.”
With Philippe Mexes suspended after being booked in Tuesday’s 2-0 loss to Sweden, Laurent Koscielny will step in alongside Adil Rami in the centre of a France defence charged with the onerous task of resisting the Spanish armada.
“We know about Spain’s approach,” said the Arsenal defender.
“They like to move around a lot. Sometimes there are no players in the centre and then, in the space of two or three passes, three or four arrive.”
Blanc has played down reports of angry exchanges in the changing room following France’s defeat by Sweden, which ended their 23-game unbeaten run, although he expressed concern at his side’s lack of application.
Spain approach the game in happier mood, after Monday’s 1-0 win over Croatia secured top spot in Group C.
There were none of the fireworks of the 4-0 thrashing of Ireland four days earlier, but Spain’s patient, probing approach kindled memories of the succession of 1-0 victories that carried them to glory at the 2010 World Cup.
Vicente del Bosque believes Spain “under-estimated” France when they lost to them in the last 16 at the 2006 World Cup but says there is no danger of that happening again on Saturday.
“France were the most complicated (potential) rival and the strongest team in Group D,” he told Spanish radio station Onda Cero.
“They have players who are very good technically and well organised. Benzema is in good form and behind him, they have three players who are very good. I think they’ll play like us. The French have no complexes.”
Spain’s defenders are already familiar with Benzema, who claimed 21 goals as Real Madrid romped to this season’s Spanish league title.
“He’s one of the most dangerous in the world,” said reserve goalkeeper Victor Valdes. “That’s why he plays where he does.”
Del Bosque is unlikely to make radical changes to his team, with Fernando Torres expected to hold on to his place at the point of the attack.
Nasri and Ribery sat out France training on Wednesday but assistant coach Alain Boghossian said they were only suffering from knocks and would both be fit to face Spain.
The game at Donetsk’s Donbass Arena is also a precursor to the 2014 World Cup qualifying campaign, with France and Spain drawn in the same group, but both teams will only have eyes for a semi-final place on Saturday.