Laurent Blanc's French revolution appears to be gaining ground although aftershocks of Les Bleus' World Cup implosion still rumble. Heads have rolled but not quite gone away.
Blanc's predecessor as manager, Raymond Domenech, is suing the French Football Federation for unfair dismissal; Nicolas Anelka is serving a suspension that has in effect ended his international career but will return to the fore next year when his defamation action against L'Equipe is heard and fuller details of who said what to whom in South Africa can be revealed; and yesterday the FFF and the players had to interrupt their preparations for tonight's friendly against England to resolve "definitively" the long-running disagreement over World Cup bonuses.
None of those issues form part of Blanc's brief. For his first match in charge, the friendly in Norway last August, the new manager omitted all the players who had been in South Africa and declared that would be the extent of his nod to the ignominious past. Thereafter it would be all about the future. That future is beginning to look bright. Twelve of the 22 French players who will be at Wembley tonight were at the World Cup but France are likely to show against England that they are a rising force rather than a farce.
Blanc's first task after taking charge was to change Les Bleus' attitude. He composed a code of conduct to which every player must subscribe "to give Les Bleus back to the people" and to avert in-fighting. Thus listening to music with headphones is banned so as to stimulate conversation, players must dine together when on international duty, sign autographs when asked to and they must sing the national anthem.
By dint of his playing career and his success as manager of Bordeaux, Blanc benefits from a respect that Domenech never enjoyed. Yet he obviously did not believe that he alone could dispel the foul atmosphere that had enveloped Les Bleus - so he replaced the entire backroom staff bar one (coach Alain Boghossian, a former team-mate of Blanc) and even hired a "psychological profiler" to help him determine how players are likely to react in certain situations.
The pitch is where the value of Blanc's methods is ultimately appraised. When he took over he declared that he was sure of only one of the components of the team he hoped to build for Euro 2012: the goalkeeper Hugo Lloris. He has experimented during his first five matches and identified new talent as well as the members of the old guard that deserve to be retained. "The nucleus of a team is starting to emerge," he says.
The sector that required most urgent action was the centre of defence, where Domenech never found solidity Blanc may have done so already. Roma's centre-back Philippe Mexès was largely ignored by Domenech and erred on the rare occasions that he was called up, but Blanc has deployed him in all five games so far. France looked fragile at the back in the first two of those ? a 2-1 defeat in Norway and a shocking 1-0 home loss to Belarus in their first Euro 2012 qualifier ? but since then Mexès has forged a steady partnership with newcomer Adil Rami of Lille. France have climbed to the top of their qualifying group by winning their last three matches without conceding. Mexès may miss tonight's match because of a sore calf ? if he does, Blanc will award another new cap, either to 20-year-old Mamadou Sakho of Paris Saint-Germain or Tottenham's Younes Kaboul.
Up front Blanc still seeks the right formula. None of the six forwards summoned for the England game were at the World Cup. Karim Benzema is the manager's first choice even though he seldom plays for Real Madrid. Blanc says he has had to renounce his vow only to pick players whose club form is good because none of the other strikers have yet proved that they can cut it at international level. Benzema's performances so far have justified this decision. The most exciting of the new forwards is Dimitri Payet, who is the joint top scorer in Ligue 1 and has dazzled in two substitute appearances so far. The fact that the 23-year-old was fined for headbutting a Saint-Etienne team-mate last season shows that Blanc is not so intimidated by the past that he will shun players with suspect temperaments. Indeed, France could be captained tonight by Alou Diarra, who is currently serving a six-game domestic ban for shoving a referee in a league game.
The shape of the side has barely changed from the Domenech era. Blanc has always deployed at least two holding midfielders, a habit for which his predecessor was lambasted.
However, Blanc seems to have found a player who is more inventive than any of the many Domenech tried in the role ? 20-year-old Rennes midfielder Yann M'vila has been one of the revelations of his reign, displaying enough dynamism to systematically disrupt the opposition and, crucially, a capacity to initiate attacks. In France's most impressive performance under the new manager, the 2-0 victory in Bosnia-Herzegovina, M'vila combined brilliantly in midfield with Alou Diarra and Abou Diaby. They were so authoritative that it seemed a 4-3-3 might become Blanc's default formation but the Arsenal man's injury seems to have sabotaged that plan.
Much of the French public insists if Les Bleus are to harness their full creative potential, Blanc must start Yoann Gourcuff and Samir Nasri in the same side, especially with Franck Ribéry still out of action. Blanc has said he is open to the idea but so far injuries and suspensions have meant he has had little opportunity to do so. Tonight he may give it a go.
The new French facesMamadou Sakho Blanc has included the 20-year-old centre-back in several squads and is expected to finally give him game-time tonight. At Paris Saint-Germain he is regarded as a future defensive great even if concentration lapses have lead to several high-profile mistakes this season.
Yann M'vila The 20-year-old Rennes midfielder has been the great discovery of Blanc's reign, showing exceptional ball-winning and distribution skills during his four caps so far.
Dimitri Payet The volatile 23-year-old contemplated giving up football after being banned for attacking a team-mate last season but this term he has been in outstanding form, his dribbling, vision and finishing making him one of the most thrilling players in Ligue 1.
Kevin Gameiro The Lorient striker boasts speed and power that belies his tiny size but also impressive technique and a real predatory instinct.
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