When last we saw France in a major international tournament, it was like watching an episode of Dream Team. Then manager and noted astrologer Raymond Domenech had completely lost control of the team in South Africa. An expletive filled tirade against the manager by Nicolas Anelka was followed by a training ground blow up between captain Patrice Evra and trainer Robert Duverne that ended with Duverne being restrained by Domenech and the team sitting on the bus refusing to continue training. It was ugly, it was embarrassing, but it was two years ago and now France has a chance to finally move on.
Now under the leadership of Laurent Blanc the French national team is unbeaten in 20 matches heading in to Euro 2012 and while the memories of the World Cup nightmare remain, optimism and hope have replaced turmoil and strife.
That's not to say everything is sunshine, lollipops and rainbows for Blanc and his team. There are serious questions, especially in the central defense that make France a bit of an unknown quantity when trying to predict their level of success in this tournament.
Blanc's preferred pairing in the middle had been Philippe Mexes and Adil Rami. Rami, who plays for Valencia, is a physically strong player but lacks a great deal of experience at the international level. Mexes might be the better defender but there are questions about his focus after losing in place in Milan's starting lineup this spring. More recently Blanc has been playing Laurent Koscielny in the middle and he looks to be the favorite to start alongside Mexes.
The outside of Blanc's defense looks to be in better shape with Gael Clichy on the left and Matheu Debuchy on the right. With Bacary Sagna out with a broken leg, Debuchy will get a chance to shine, something he's already done with two assist in a victory over Germany in February. Both men offer an attacking style that fits Blanc's preferred style. Patrice Evra will also be available but has made all the wrong headlines recently after being caught on video mimicking wiping his rear end with a French jersey on the bench.
In the defensive midfield, Alou Diarra will be the likely choice as the anchor in the back despite his rough season at Marseille. Young star Yann M'Vila had been getting time in the other deep role, but an ankle injury could keep him out for the start of the tournament. Diarra, or M'Vila if he's healthy, will partner Yohan Cabaye, who is coming off a fantastic season at Newcastle.
The three midfielders up top will be key for Blanc and France. Franck Ribery and Sami Nasri are likely to start, despite the fact Ribery has regularly been anything but special in a French jersey. There is competition though from Florent Malouda, Mathieu Valbuena, Jérémy Ménez, Marvin Martin, and Hatem Ben Arfa. Basically, Blanc has options but I'm leaning towards Ben Arfa getting the chance thanks to his excellent season with Newcastle.
The only certainties for France are at the front and back. Karim Benzema will be the attacking threat up top for Blanc and will need to have a big performance if France wants to advance deep in the knockout rounds. Meanwhile at the back, the young but extremely dependable Hugo Lloris will anchor the defense in goal.
Projected lineup (4-4-1-1)
GK: Hugo Lloris; LB Gael Clihy, CB Phillipe Mexes, CB Laurent Koscielny, RB Matheu Debuchy; DM Alou Diarra, DM Yohan Cabaye; LM Franck Ribery CM Sami Nasri RM Hatim Ben Arfa; F Karim Benzema
Karim Benzema: He is coming off a fantastic season at Real Madrid and is the undisputed star of the French team. The pressure will be on the 24-year-old striker to score goals in bunches at the top of Blanc's formation. How well Benzema performs could determine France's level of success and there are questions if he'll be up to the task without the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo and Mesut Ozil providing service to him in the box. As good as the young striker is, he'll need plenty of help from the midfield in order to be successful.
Quarter Finals: The French side looks good enough to escape their group, especially with some many doubt surrounding the England squad. How far they move beyond that is a much bigger question mark. If they can top their group, they could have a winnable match against the likes of Italy or Croatia. A second place finish likely means a date against defending European champion and World Cup champion Spain.