Formidable France emerge as World Cup contenders despite Ribery withdrawal

COMMENT: Les Bleus were left reeling by the loss of their star player to a back problem but they have not missed the winger at all in their opening two games in Brazil

Blaise Matuidi admitted before the World Cup began that France’s players were praying that Franck Ribery would be fit to represent his country in Brazil.

The midfielder confessed: “We know we need him.” 

The early impressions would suggest they don’t. Since losing Ribery to a persistent back problem, France have scored 16 goals, eight of which have come in their first two World Cup outings.

The 8-0 warm-up rout of Jamaica was dismissed by many as a meaningless mis-match, while little importance was attached to the 3-0 win over Honduras because of the alleged limitations of the opposition.

However, Friday’s 5-2 demolition of Switzerland cannot be ignored. France are a force to be reckoned with once again.

It’s been a remarkable transformation. Indeed, few expected France to actually be here. In November of last year, they were beaten 2-0 by Ukraine in the first leg of their play-off in Kiev. Brazil 2014 appeared but a distant dream.

However, necessity is the mother of invention and, with his side needing a resounding win in Paris to progress, coach Didier Deschamps opted to ditch his preferred 4-2-3-1 formation in favour of an attacking 4-3-3. The results have been nothing short of sensational.

After storming to a 3-0 second-leg win over Ukraine to book their berth in Brazil, France have cut loose. 
Netherlands were dispatched with impressive ease in a friendly in Saint-Denis in March before Norway were hammered 4-0 at the same venue in May.
The one blip was a 1-1 draw at home to Paraguay on June 1. That result, coupled with the loss of Ribery just five days later, lowered the expectations surrounding France. Even Benzema admitted that the timing of Ribery’s withdrawal was “horrible”. France’s response to losing their top scorer during qualifying, though, has been nothing short of sensational.

Just two days after Ribery’s departure, France ran the Reggae Boyz ragged. The value of the win at Villeneuve-d’Ascq was widely discussed, with even Deschamps admitting he was unsure if his side had been good, or Jamaica just plain bad. However, as Ottmar Hitzfeld rather ominously pointed out prior to Switzerland’s meeting with Les Bleus in Salvador, his men had only scraped a 1-0 win over Winfried Schafer’s side.

It is also worth noting that Deschamps started with the same starting line-up against the Swiss that had torn Jamaica apart, with Olivier Giroud and Karim Benzema in the same attacking triumvirate alongside Mathieu Valbuena.

Given Antoine Griezmann had done a fine job of filling the void left by Ribery on the left-hand side of France’s forward line against Honduras, eyebrows were raised when it first emerged that the Real Sociedad youngster was to lose his place to Giroud. 

However, it proved a masterstroke on Deschamps’ part. Giroud scored the opening goal in Salvador and set up the third for Valbuena. Even more significantly, Benzema, despite being pushed out wide, was central to everything that France did as an attacking unit. Indeed, the Real Madrid striker revelled in his role on the left-hand side, with his goal and two assists more than making up for his missed penalty.

However, it would be wrong to single out an individual after what was a remarkable team performance. Four years on from their shameful strike in South Africa, France are a team once again. That is why Ribery’s absence has barely been felt.

For that, Deschamps must take enormous credit. There is a real sense of unity about their squad. Giroud admitted that he had been left “disappointed” by his omission for the Honduras clash – yet the striker did not sulk, instead responding with a fine display against the Swiss. 

Paul Pogba, meanwhile, was surprisingly benched in Salvador, having very nearly gotten himself sent off in France’s tournament opener, with Deschamps calling on the 21-year-old to exhibit more self-control. His riposte was a sublime outside-of-the-foot assist for Benzema.

All of the above simply underlines that this is a talented, committed squad capable of making headlines for all the right reasons at this World Cup. 

Indeed, while they were the lowest-ranked European qualifier when the tournament draw was made, they now look like one of the continent’s best hopes of finally claiming a World Cup staged on South American soil. Vive la difference!

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