Whatever happens to France in Poland and the Ukraine this summer, surely things can’t go as badly as they did in South Africa.
Their shambolic 2010 World Cup campaign saw a group stage exit, the end of Raymond Domenech’s at times chaotic reign as manager, international bans for the likes of Patrice Evra and Nicolas Anelka, and in many people’s eyes the removal of France as a credible force on the international stage.
Charged with restoring some pride to a nation deeply embarrassed by both the conduct and performances of their footballers, replacement boss Laurent Blanc is doing a pretty decent job is trying circumstances.
Admittedly there was the race row which ended with Blanc being cleared of any wrongdoing by the French Football Federation, but on the pitch things have been going smoothly for the former Manchester United defender, from a first placed finish in a qualifying group which saw them only lose one game, to an impressive February friendly win in Germany.
Now they enter the Euros with a pool of players that are combining new with less and less of the old.
The generation which won both 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 have long since gone, but Blanc is blessed with an array of talented players who are just coming into their prime, the chief amongst them being Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Karim Benzema.
Placed alongside England in Group D in the finals, France’s first match against the Three Lions in Donetsk on the early evening of June 11th has the potential to be one of the best of the tournament, despite the fact that both tend to start out sluggishly.
Whoever wins, if anyone (Draw 15/8 William Hill) will then probably need to beat one of the Ukraine and Sweden to confirm a place in the quarter-finals. Hardly the most daunting of prospects.
But first is first and second is basically nowhere in Group D, given that whoever finishes as runners-up will be thrown into a quarter final with the Group C-winning Spanish. Given England’s uncertainty heading into the finals, then France could profit and win that first match and ultimately the group, with a France/England straight forecast (15/4 Bwin) looking tempting.
Where the French go from there may depend on their attitude and just how many fights have broken out by then.
A quarter-final against Italy would throw together two of Europe’s most attractive but flawed sides, but even a victory shouldn’t give those backing the French much reason to break out the champagne and celebrate a potential final. A semi-final elimination (5/1 Bet365) looks to be the best bet for those optimistic about Blanc’s band of brothers.
And why shouldn’t you feel encouragement for them? In Benzema they have one of the continent’s most feared strikers, and if he can thrive off service which won’t be quite as pinpoint as the stuff he gets from Cristiano Ronaldo at Real Madrid, then a punt on the 24-year-old to finish as top goalscorer (20/1 Paddy Power) might be advised, particularly if the Ukraine look to be shipping goals during the group stages.
Captained by goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, this isn’t quite a complete French revolution from the embarrassment of South Africa – the likes of Florent Malouda and ringleader Evra are still in the squad – but newer names such as Olivier Giroud, Jeremy Menez, Yann M’Vila and Newcastle’s impressive Yohan Cabaye will all be itching to make their mark.
Blanc will too, and although the French won’t win Euro 2012 they can still have a better tournament than many who watched the last World Cup could be expecting, or maybe even be dreamt of.