Blanc to experiment against U.S.
Laurent Blanc plans to field a young experimental team vs. the U.S.
Blanc likely to hand debuts to 3 youngsters, including striker Olivier Giroud
Blanc's France squad still has some spots to fill ahead of Euro 2012
France coach Laurent Blanc declared at his Tuesday news conference that he plans to field two different sides for this weekıs friendly matches against USA (Friday) and Belgium (Tuesday). "It will be a young team against USA and a stronger one against Belgium," he said.
The squad is missing some injured players -- among them, Samir Nasr, Yohan Cabaye and Florent Malouda -- and Blanc is likely to hand debuts to three players for Friday's match, each of whom could earn a place in France's squad for Euro 2012. Here is a rundown of those who have the most to gain from this weekıs match:
1. Laurent Koscielny. The Arsenal defender has been named in Blanc's last five national team squads and is finally poised to make his debut. If he plays well, he has a great chance not just of making the squad but also forcing his way into the starting lineup. At the moment, Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami are Blanc's first-choice centre-backs but Rami struggled to cope with Edin Dzeko in the nervy qualifying draw with Bosnia-Herzegovina.
There is no obvious third-choice center back behind Mexes and Rami: Mamadou Sakho (four appearances) and Younes Kaboul (five appearances) have both stepped in but this is an opportunity for Koscielny to stake his claim. At Arsenal, he has dislodged new signing Per Mertesacker to become Thomas Vermaelen's partner. Coach Arsene Wenger believes the Vermaelen-Koscielny partnership is as strong as any in the Premier League, (which makes you wonder why he signed Mertesacker).
And yet Koscielny still divides opinion among Arsenal fans, depending on if they prefer to focus on his brilliant display against Lionel Messi in last season's Champions league win over Barcelona, or his error that led to Wojciech Szczesny dropping the ball to concede the winner in Arsenal's Carling Cup final defeat to Birmingham City. "My game is based on that reading the game, being a step ahead, and I like to bring the ball out of defense and use it well," he told Canal Plus last season. Koscielny turned down an offer to represent Euro 2012 hosts Poland last season, as he qualifies through his paternal grandfather. He could yet make it there as a Frenchman.
2. Jeremy Mathieu. This is the first call-up for the Valencia fullback but of more significance are the players he has overtaken to get his chance. Given that Eric Abidal is Blanc's first-choice left-back -- Blanc prefers Abidal on the flank, even though he has covered for him in the center -- Mathieu could now leap ahead of the two Manchester-based left-backs, Gael Clichy and Patrice Evra, to become Abidal's backup.
When Evra was not included for these matches, it was reported that he had been given compassionate leave following the death of his brother a few weeks ago. But Evra's status in the squad, following his role as captain during the 2010 World Cup fiasco, when the squad threatened to go on strike, is still uncertain. Blanc has to decide if the negatives from his presence as a reserve defender -- the stigma of 2010, how he copes with the demotion -- outweigh the positives, which are that he has been United's most consistent defender over the last four years.
There are also other options behind Abidal as well, among them Clichy, who told Le Parisien last month that "I have nothing to envy any left-back [in the world]." Clichy has yet to shine in a France shirt, though it remains his ambition. "I am only 26 and I know I can still get better. It is by putting in good performances that I can one day get back in the France team," he added. Aly Cissokho and Benoit Tremoulinas could also try and force their way into the reckoning.
3. Olivier Giroud. Last month it was Lyon's Bafe Gomis; this time around, the striker in form is Giroud, whose eight goals this season have propelled Montpellier into second place in Ligue 1, and with a chance of Champions League qualification. Like Koscielny, his former teammate at second division side Tours, this has been a speedy rise to prominence for Giroud, who is only in his second season in the top-flight (last year he scored 12 goals).
France proved against Bosnia-Herzegovina that there is a problem at center forward if Karim Benzema is not available. Loic Remy played there then and he missed two chances through the middle. Though Remy has been a rare bright spot in Marseille's dismal season, Blanc prefers him wide-right in the front three (with Franck Ribery on the left). With Kevin Gameiro secure in his status as an impact sub, there is room for one more striker, given that Guillaume Hoarau, out of favor at Paris Saint-Germain, has dropped out of contention.
Giroud is more versatile than Hoarau: just as good in the air, but a better finisher. It could be between Gomis and Giroud for that final strikers' spot in the squad, and if Giroud can continue his decent form this week, he could gain the edge (though Djibril Cisse is a compelling outsider for the position).
Blanc still has decisions to make all over the pitch, and because of his careful public statements, it's always hard to know what the coach is thinking. Marvin Martin also has the opportunity to step up in place of Nasri, which could spell bad news for Blanc's former star man at Bordeaux, Yoann Gourcuff. One thing is for sure: nothing is ever set in stone with Blanc, and he is not afraid to shake up the hierarchy. With that in mind, the France team that faces USA on Friday may be young, but it will also be extra-motivated.
Ben Lyttleton has written about French football for various publications. He edited an oral history of the European Cup, Match of My Life: European Cup Finals, which was published in 2006.
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