France desperate to prove redemption is for real in Italy friendly

After a string of poor results France's recent draw against Spain has rekindled popular affection for the national team

Bafétimbi Gomis says a train trip showed him the transformation. "I took the TGV and mingled with people from all walks of life. I was proud and everyone was happy," explained the Lyon striker this week, suggesting that it is the first time in several years as a France international that mixing with the public has been pleasant. It was France's performance in the 1-1 draw in Spain that rekindled popular affection for the national team. "All of France was thrilled by it," Gomis said. "The French were not sated during the Euros but this time they saw a France that attacked and displayed values and virtues."

It was indeed a fine performance by France, who were dominated in the early stages and fell behind before Hugo Lloris saved a penalty, Les Bleus seized the upper hand and Olivier Giroud headed a last-minute equaliser to end a run of 25 consecutive home victories for Spain and preserve France's chance of finishing ahead of the European and world champions at the top of their World Cup qualifying group. Against Italy in Parma on Wednesday, France will strive to confirm that the feat was formative, that their redemption is for real.

We have been here before, of course. This time two years ago Laurent Blanc was being feted for revitalising the national team after the acid reign of Raymond Domenech and the meltdown in South Africa 2010. But after the supposed renaissance came the relapse, with Euro 2012 concluding in insipid performances (especially the lifeless quarter-final defeat by Spain), recriminations about players' attitudes and the departure of the manager.

Blanc was replaced by Didier Deschamps. For a moment there seemed to be a danger that the new man had expedited the whole boom-bust cycle, with the feelgood factor spawned by a promising start (a friendly draw against Uruguay and two wins from two qualifiers) receding after only his fourth match in charge, last month's ignominious 1-0 home defeat by Japan. After that there were fears of humiliation in Spain; instead the French revolted in the right way and really rattled La Roja. Unsurprisingly, then, Deschamps has picked almost the same squad to face Italy.

There would be no more appropriate opponent against whom Deschamps could highlight the mark he has put on France. He and many other Serie A-seasoned members of France's fabled 1998 squad have often expressed their gratitude to Italian football for helping to elevate France to the ranks of the elite, teaching them how to lace flamboyance with pragmatism.

The starting point, of course, is always pragmatism, as expressed through dynamism, discipline and determination. Those three qualities were more to the fore against Spain last month than at virtually any other time from the French national team in the past six years. There was a sprinkling of skill too, though talent was not the defining feature and many previous teams have been more technically gifted. That Samir Nasri and Hatem Ben Arfa have been left out by Deschamps shows technique is not top of the new manager's agenda.

All Deschamps's personnel changes have impressed. He dismantled the central defensive partnership of Philippe Mexès and Adil Rami; against Spain those positions were held by Laurent Koscielny and Mamadou Sakho (against Finland and Belarus, Sakho had been partnered by Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa, who did well except when rashly earning the yellow cards that made him miss the Spain game).

Ahead of them Blaise Matuidi appears to have made himself a first-choice central midfielder, especially with Abou Diaby injured, while the Lyon midfielder Maxime Gonalons and the Toulouse duo of Etienne Capoue and Moussa Sissoko have all impressed, as has the recalled Rio Mavuba. Yohan Cabaye is the only one of the Euro 2012 midfielders to have featured prominently under Deschamps.

The road back looks long for Nasri and Ben Arfa. Deschamps admits that he fell out with both players when they were together at Marseille but claims that is not the reason for their exclusion. "There is no such thing as a professional grudge," he says, insisting his squad is picked on merit. That he has called up Mathieu Valbuena, with whom he also clashed at Marseille, gives credence to that – he has fallen out with so many players – and posted "behaviour rules" all over Clairefontaine – demonstrating the importance he attaches to attitude.

If Nasri and Ben Arfa get a recall, they had best make the most of their second chance. Franck Ribéry and Patrice Evra have done that. Both were heavily involved in the controversies of recent years but have excelled under Deschamps, with Evra in particular putting in his best international performance in the draw in Spain.

It will be interesting to see how Ribéry performs against Italy – and around the match in Italy. Because one of only two changes that Deschamps has made from the Spain match is to recall Yoann Gourcuff, who has not featured for France since Blanc ditched him from the Euro 2012 squad at the last minute.

Gourcuff has shown signs of rediscovering his best form for Lyon this season but has seldom enjoyed working with Ribéry, as much for incompatibilities off the pitch as on it. This will be Gourcuff's 30th cap and if he is at last able to fulfil his potential on the international stage, he will be invaluable, adding creativity to a squad that, beyond Valbuena, Ribéry and Cabaye, is light on it, as was obvious during the Japan defeat.

You get the feeling that only after trying all other options will Deschamps consider recalling Nasri and Ben Arfa.

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