February 2011

Les Bleus Turnaround May Be Nigh, Giuseppe Rossi’s Azzurri, and Other International Date Musings

Gourcuff's strong performance was one of many positive signs in Paris Wednesday night for France.

By Neil W. Blackmon

Today would have been a USMNT match day but as I noted yesterday, the Federation made the safe and correct call in cancelling the Yanks’ fixture against Egypt in Cairo. There were plenty of FIFA internationals on the menu however, and at least a few storylines worth visiting on this busy day on the pitch. Here are three thoughts and observations.

First, France’s 1-0 victory over Brazil in Paris was impressive, necessary, and a sign of things turning around for Les Bleus.

Not many teams in the history of international football get to say they are a nemesis or “bogey” side for Selecao, but that label surely applies to Les Bleus, who extended their unbeaten streak over Selecao to seven with a 1-0 and could have been worse than that victory this evening in Paris. Brazil haven’t beaten Les Bleus since 1992, and while they looked the better side until Hernanes was sent off in the 40th minute for Nigel de Jonging Karim Benzema, the French weren’t exactly playing on wobbly knees the entire first frame. The game instead was a game of waves of pressure, with Brazil taking the early initiative but not truly troubling Hugo Lloris in the opening five minutes. Just after ten minutes, Benzema should have put France ahead after a brilliant through ball from beleaguered Lyon man Yoann Gourcuff, but he fired mystifyingly wide even with goalkeeper Julio Cesar late off his line to challenge. Brazil answered with twenty minutes of lovely possession and movement, but again never greatly troubled Lloris—a just high strike from inside the left portion of the penalty area from Brazilian captain Robinho most likely its best chance to open the scoring. Brazil’s inability to find the final pass was a bit puzzling given repeated poor clearances by the Lyon goalkeeper, who twice in the opening half hand delivered the ball to Brazilian attackers within twenty-five yards.

One never wants to see a red in a friendly but when a tackle happens like the one Nigel de Jong issued Stu Holden in Amsterdam last spring, or the de Jong copycat Hernanes dealt to Benzema this afternoon—it is truly warranted and unlike last spring this referee got his decision right. France did what good teams should do when given an advantage—they used it, menacing the space on the flanks left by the undermanned Selecao to create width and a variety of good scoring chances in the second half. The second of these chances resulted in the game’s only goal when a thrilling run by one of the game’s stars Jeremy Menez found Benzema unmarked in the box and the Real Madrid man coolly finished past a helpless Julio Cesar. As mentioned above, Benzema had other chances but his finishing was lacking (a trend if you’ve watched him in La Liga this season)—but credit him for finishing one and giving his side a much needed victory.

Much needed victory? It is safe to suggest so, in this writer’s view. Keep in mind that the well-documented French flameout and the France Football Federation suspensions that followed it was not an isolated yet horrific display of footballing. This as a Domenech-led side that had also embarrassed itself in EURO 08. With all due respect to “The Hand of Gaul” and the Irish National Team, this was a Les Bleus side that entered Paris Wednesday night having missed out on garnering a signature victory in international play in around three years. Wednesday was that victory and it came with youth and without the signature piece of that youth, Samir Nasri, on the field for the red, white and blue.

On Twitter earlier in the day I mentioned that I expected France to play well and that I felt the time for a French turnaround was nigh. It is good to be occasionally right but there is more to it than just beating Brazil. There is the history of French football and a splendid young nucleus hinting that the dark clouds may be finally passing. Nasri is the centerpiece to be sure, but despite league troubles Yoann Gourcuff is an immense talent and that was fully on display Wednesday night as he gave new Chelsea man David Luiz and his pal Dani Alves all they could handle and more. Karim Benzema is infuriatingly inconsistent but he is fast, powerful and looked every bit as threatening at even-strength as AC Milan counterpart Alexandre Pato, and watching him…well watching both… play tonight you could only imagine how useful they may have been to their sacked managers at crucial moments in the World Cup last summer. Hugo Lloris is a fine goalkeeper, and he kept his clean sheet despite some shaky moments. Jeremy Menez is becoming a revelation on the wing and along with the veteran Malouda he gives France the ability to change the field quickly and create width through quick ball movement. So the pieces for a quick turnaround are in place.

History also suggests that France will begin winning again on the regular in the very near future. Nothing is consistent about Les Bleus except their inconsistency and historical cycles suggest they rise quickly and furiously and fall quicker and faster. Keep in mind this was the World Champion country only 13 years ago and you get an idea of this trend, but for good measure, here is a chart:

1998 World Cup—Winner

2000 EURO—Winner

2002 World Cup—Last In Group

2004 EURO—Quarterfinals, Lost To Greece

2006 World Cup—Finals, Lost to Italy

2008 EURO- Last in Group

2010 World Cup- Last in Group

What this suggests is it is feast or famine for the French Football federation and the time for famine is likely over. Tonight’s win over a young but entirely competent and star-laden Selecao could, in the grand scheme of things, be the moment Les Bleus once again turned the corner.

Safe to say Yanks fans feel more passionately about the Jersey boy than his Italian managers ?

Second—speaking of “Man We Wish we’d brought That Guy” Moments—Does Giuseppe Rossi love Italy more than they love him? I’m starting to think so…

The summer of Giuseppe Rossi has been well-documented by my main man Keith Hickey, but seriously, how mind-boggling is his omission from the Azzurri by Marcelo Lippi at this point? It grows more mind-boggling with each passing day. In the form of his young life at Villareal, the best American player under 23 (yeah, it’s a dagger to the side) is in demand pretty much everywhere but with his national side, where once again he was relegated to the bench at the onset of proceedings in Dortmund Wednesday evening. Somehow, it was determined by the powers that be that Inter’s new face, Giampaolo Pazzini should start in Rossi’s stead against Germany. Pazzini did open his Inter career with a brace, so you could almost justify the choice had he not promptly produced mostly nothing for a half before being mercifully replaced by Marco Borriello at the break.

Rossi was brought on after the half in his own right, replacing Antonio Cassano and he delivered immediate dividends and life into a to-that-point underwhelming Azzurri attack. His equalizer in the 81st minute was brilliant because he was under pressure and took the shot with very little room to spare, as Manuel Neuer had cut off most his angle. Balancing the angle with the pressure applied by Per Mertesacker is a tall order, but Rossi calmly leveraged Mertesacker’s challenge with his body and found the back of the net with his right foot. Like France to Brazil, the goal kept one of the more puzzling streaks in international football going as Germany have not defeated Italy since 1995.

One would think production would be the terminal barometer of playing time at the international level—perhaps even more important than club form. Here, Rossi would have no debate from most in the business— he simply finds ways to score goals for country, as any American who watched the Confederations Cup knows too painfully. What makes his use as a substitute and not certain regular more mystifying is he is a consistent-club producer and rising star that also produces regularly when given the opportunity for country. It is purely speculative to suggest some in the Italian Federation remain suspicious of Rossi because of his American background—but the longer these mysterious omissions or benching continue, the more that speculation becomes a bit more relational to reality.

Another steady performance by Joe Hart--Makes the inevitable heartbreak more entertaining, we think.

Finally, England avenged its largest defeat this century with a 2-1 come from behind victory over Denmark at the Parken Stadium.

The Parken was the same site that saw England fall 4-1 to the Danes in 2005—their worst (scoreboard wise, of course) defeat of the young century and while a win is a win is a win—this is England and there will be questions asked of the Three Lions as there always are. The early goal is concerning but it was a goal of quality, a fine ball by Christian Ericksen and a fine finish by Daniel Agger. Jack Wilshere had little impact despite all the hype in the build-up, which will certainly draw its unfair and unrealistic share of criticism in the English tabloids, but the pessimism there will be leveled out by the overly optimistic proclamations that surely will be made about Darren Bent, the man so long out of the picture in England who entered and equalized just past ten minutes.

Again, the bottom line is there are two positives for the Three Lions to take from this match. Actually, three, big picture. First, they won a road match away from home with the meat of EURO qualifying coming up where earning points away will be of paramount importance. Second, there were no injuries and goalkeeper Joe Hart made no glaring errors, meaning he still has seventeen months or so to break English hearts, as is his birthright as English keeper. Finally, win, lose or draw—the English were likely to, and of course will, leave Denmark still ranked well-ahead of the team that won their group in the United States, and ahead of Slovenia, the team who finished third in that group but who find themselves closer to the Three Lions in the FIFA standings.

Neil W. Blackmon is Co-Founder and Editor-In-Chief of The Yanks Are Coming. He can be reached at nwblackmon@gmail.com and you can follow him on Twitter at @nwb_usmnt.