Archive for the ‘France’ Category

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Karim Benzema underwent a metamorphosis at Real Madrid. “I’m not a cat any more, now I’m a lion,” he said after scoring the opener in a 2-1 win over Atletico back in March, 2011. It was the France international’s 12th goal of the calendar year.

Gone were the days when he used to pussy foot around the penalty area. Now Benzema bounded across the pitch at the Bernabeu and beyond as though on the savannah, losing the meoux and finding his roar. Behind this feat of feline transformation was coach Jose Mourinho.

For a time, it seemed there really was no limit to what this man could do. “I’m not Harry Potter,” he likes to say. Give over, Jose. Turn a cat into a lion? That’s no problem for il Mago. And besides, it was a trick he had to pull.

Over the winter his dog, Gonzalo Higuain, had just been ruled out for the spring after suffering a slipped disc. “If I can’t hunt with a dog, I will hunt with a cat,” Mourinho said. “With a dog you hunt more and you hunt better. But if you have not got a dog and you have got a cat, you hunt with a cat.”

The cat was Benzema of course. With a poke of the stick, Mourinho stirred the beast inside of him. Remember he’d considered changing the time at which Real trained because Benzema arrived “at 10 o’clock half asleep and then by 11” was “already sleeping again.”

With his pride hurt, this big cat began to show the claws he’d displayed at Lyon again. Benzema ended the season with 26 goals and scored another 32 the next as Real overcame Barcelona to win La Liga.

But then, certainly towards the end of the last campaign, the spell appeared to wear off a bit. The lion was gradually becoming a cat again. Though Benzema managed to score 20 goals, he seemed to suffer like many of his teammates did throughout Mourinho’s fractious final season.

His goal-to-game ratio fell by 30% to 0.41, down from 0.62 per match the previous campaign. Benzema was often played out on the flank, substituted, or left on the bench, losing the continuity which all great strikers require.

All the while – actually much much before – Benzema’s form for France has been a cause for concern back home. He hasn’t scored in 1155 minutes for Les Bleus. His last goals for his country came in a 4-0 win against Estonia in Mans over a year ago. It’s a worry.

So what happened?

Let’s break his senior international career up into two phases. Interestingly, 11 of Benzema’s 15 goals for his country came in the 32 caps he received between 2007 and 2010. Since then in his other 27 appearances, he has, to cite the analysis of Jean Pierre-Papin, “become more of a playmaker [for France] than a finisher.” There have been twice as many assists as goals: eight to four.

On the one hand, this is a virtue and speaks of Benzema’s all-round forward play. “His palette is extremely large,” wrote Bixente Lizarazu in L’Equipe. “He can dribble, play the final pass, put himself about… He knows how to do everything. Score too, but without hanging around the penalty area.”

On the other hand, France need Benzema to score. They have run dry in each of their last four matches, which were defeats to Spain, Brazil, Uruguay and a stalemate with Belgium. It’s now been 389 minutes since they found the back of the net, the longest goal drought since the last one between July 1986 and April 1987.

And yet France have a striker in Benzema with a reputation as one of the best in the world. Deserved or not, most people will agree Benzema is in possession of potential without equal among his nation’s other strikers: Olivier Giroud, Andre-Pierre Gignac, Bafetimbi Gomis and Loic Remy. That’s what makes his travails in front of goal for France so frustrating and perplexing.

Is it a lack of competition? Could it be because he doesn’t have the same players or movement around him when he plays for his country as he does on turning out for his club? Or is he just not working hard enough, a judgement at odds with his apparently selfless, assist-providing style of play? At the weekend, Real’s new coach, Carlo Ancelotti touched upon this. “Benzema was whistled, [Angel] Di Maria applauded. The supporters see the work. Work is applauded.”

What’s encouraging for France is that, although his attitude has been questioned, Benzema has at least started the season well with two goals and two assists in three games for his club.

Playing in a 4-4-2 under Ancelotti, he finds himself in the same system for France with the in-form Giroud as his partner. Familiarity with the formation – though under Laurent Blanc, Les Bleus also mirrored Real’s 4-2-3-1 – but also having someone to share the goal-scoring burden with might get Benzema scoring for his country again.

Yet should he fire blanks once more against Georgia tonight and Belarus next Tuesday, the calls for him to be benched will only grow.

Franck Ribery went a couple of years without playing well or being decisive for France in the build up to the 2010 World Cup and afterwards. He has since come through the other side, replicating his excellent club form at Bayern for his country. The hope is that Benzema, who wasn’t selected for that tournament, will do the same to get France to the next one in Brazil.

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Has a signing made as strong an impact, and as quickly, as Moussa Sissoko has at Newcastle? The French midfielder set up Papiss Cisse for an excellent goal on his debut in a win at Aston Villa, but it was his home debut, four days later, against Chelsea, when Sissoko really impressed.

Playing as the number ten in a much more forward position than he is used to in France, Sissoko used his pace and power to great effect, at one stage outrunning Ashley Cole despite giving the Englishman a two-yard head start. And he scored two goals to boot, the second a pile-driver from outside the area that secured a last-minute 3-2 win. No wonder the Newcastle fans are asking, “Demba Who?” following the sale of their top scorer last month.

Newcastle coach Alan Pardew, now nicknamed ‘Depardew’, after French actor Gerard Depardieu, has handled the ten Frenchmen in his squad very cleverly. There were never more than four ‘Frenchies’ on the field against Chelsea at any one time (subs Sylvain Marveaux and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa came on for Yoann Gouffran and Sissoko) and it was clear that Newcastle were defending with Argentines (Fabrizio Coloccini and Jonas Gutierrez) and Englishmen (Steven Taylor and James Perch) and relying on the French to provide to technical ability to break down opponents.

“Sissoko brings us energy and power,” said Pardew. “When he arrived, I told him he needed to score more. Here, the game is more open, faster, less compact than in France. I had no doubt he would adapt quickly.” Newcastle had been tracking him for 18 months, and chief scout Graham Carr watched 20 games in Ligue 1 in January alone.
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I don’t know who you are. I don’t know what you want. If you are looking for money, I can tell you I don’t have money. But what I do have are a very particular set of skills; skills I have acquired over a very long career. Skills that make me a nightmare for people like you. If you get off the pitch now, that’ll be the end of it. I will not look for you, I will not pursue you. But if you don’t, I will look for you, I will find you, and I will kill you.

From Lorient’s 5-1 defeat of lower league minnows in the Coupe de France, h/t 101greatgoals.com.

Silvio Berlusconi will keep his clippers in his pocket for the time being. The Milan owner informed Stephan El Shaarawy that he was granting the player’s Mohawk a presidential pardon during a recent visit to the club’s training facility. Now he may have to extend a similar courtesy to M’baye Niang after Milan’s latest punk-haired prodigy opened his account for the Rossoneri on Thursday night.

“He looks like Balotelli with that hair,” exclaimed Berlusconi at full-time of Milan’s 3-0 Coppa Italia win over Reggina, and he was hardly the only one drawing those comparisons. Niang’s narrow, cropped take on the Mohawk certainly called to mind Balotelli’s look, albeit the Milan forward had embellished his trim with a star shaved into the side.

The similarities, though, extended beyond grooming preferences. Balotelli had scored his first senior goal for Inter against these same opponents, on a December night, in the same round of the same competition. Niang was 17 years old, just as Balotelli had been. They each finished up on the right side of a three-goal victory.

Both players had reputations for being as much of a handful off the pitch as they were on it. Prior to Thursday’s game, Niang was known to many Milan fans first and foremost for having been caught driving in the city without a licence. A story went round that he had lied to police by claiming to be Bakaye Traoré, though Niang denied it on Twitter, saying he had simply informed them that was who the car belonged to.
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Emmanuel Petit is a self-proclaimed rebel, but now he wants to make a difference. As a player, he won the Premier League and Cup double with Arsenal, he scored a goal in France’s victorious 1998 World Cup final and helped his country win Euro 2000. This week, Petit announced his candidacy to run for French football federation president, but not in this year’s elections, which are in December. No, instead he wants to run in 2016. As with a team ahead of the World Cup, he has given himself four years to prepare.

Not that he plans to be idle during that period. He has become a supporter of Eric Thomas, president of the Amateur French Football Association who stood in last summer’s FFF elections though won less than 0.5% of the vote. The pair co-wrote a letter sent this week to 15,000 amateur clubs, which make up 63% of the voter base, noting that nearly 500,000 members have left the FFF in the last five years, with 3,000 amateur clubs going out of business. “To change things,” the pair urged, “you need to express yourselves.”

But they might have to wait a while. Thomas isn’t sure if he’s going to run again in December. The AFFA have a meeting next week to decide whether to put forward a candidate to challenge the trio in contention: current incumbent Noel Le Graet, former journalist-turned-Marseille president Christophe Bouchet, and DNCG (the financial body that monitors French clubs’ finances) ex-president Francois Ponthieu.

“The federation is not only a showcase for the national team: it is like a big train and behind it, a lot of carriages have come loose,” Petit told France Football this week. “The federation is trying to cope with the economic crisis but it also has a social mission: sport must find its place in the social nucleus. There is not enough sport in education.”
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One hundred passes. Every game, 100 passes. That’s not the only thing Yohan Cabaye looks to achieve in each match he plays, but he knows that if he completes 100 passes, it’s a good sign. He got the idea after reading an interview with Andres Iniesta, who said that if his Barcelona and Spain team-mate Xavi made under 100 passes in a match, he was furious. “That stuck with me,” said Cabaye. “One hundred passes, I must hit that now! Since that day, I try to be at the heart of every move.”

The Frenchman may not have made the same spectacular start to this season as last, when Newcastle went unbeaten for the first 12 Premier League games, but he has become a key player for club and country, and in double-quick time. Before France ended Spain’s 24-match winning run in qualifying matches (which goes back to September 2007) on Tuesday night, Spain boss Vicente del Bosque compared Cabaye to his own midfield metronome, Xavi. “That kind of thing gives me confidence but I know I have a long way to go,” Cabaye responded.

Cabaye was one of France’s few players to emerge from Euro 2012 with any credit; with Laurent Blanc trying to emulate Spain’s style of play (until he forgot all his principles when Spain were the opposition), Cabaye was often described as the Xavi of Les Bleus.

“For me, Xavi is the best player in the world,” Cabaye told L’Equipe. “Whenever there is a Barcelona match, I watch it, to learn, try to get closer to his level, even though I know it’s impossible. But I can try. He always keeps the ball. He is always on the move, always finds good space. He always makes the pass that can take out three players.”
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Last season, just after Abou Diaby was injured again after a 20-minute substitute appearance against Fulham in November, French newspaper L’Equipe ran a full-page picture of the midfielder with red marks and arrows pointing to all the parts of his body affected by injuries. He looked like the bionic man: over 25 different injuries have kept him out for more than two weeks at a time since joining Arsenal in summer 2005.

On his day, as he showed in Arsenal’s recent 2-0 win at Liverpool and last week’s 1-0 win for France in Finland in which he scored the winner, Diaby has the ability to be one of the best in the world, an all-powerful midfield presence, someone who can sit deep and win the ball, drive the team forward with a counter-attack, and with the technique and vision to find a decisive pass or score himself.

Yaya Toure is perhaps the only other player with similar attributes, although his first coach at Auxerre, Guy Roux, thinks Diaby is unique: “No player in his position can do what Abou can do,” Roux said. “He can take out four or five players without flinching. He has technique and great vision; he can create and defend and can play in any position, even if he is best as an attacking midfielder. But in a 4-4-2, he can even play as second striker.”

Unfortunately for Diaby and Arsenal, those days have been few and far between: in his seven seasons at the club (before the current campaign), he has started 82 league games, an average of just over 11 per season.
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