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Feb 7, 2013

Mixed signals for France and Germany

Twelve months can be a long time in international football after all. The last time these sides met, just under a year ago in Bremen, France looked on the cusp of something very good. Their 2-1 win wasn't fully reflective of the style with which they swept past Germany - albeit a home side with a few notable absentees, including Bastian Schweinsteiger.

In that promising friendly, Yann M'Vila - now banished from the international picture until March next year for off-field misdemeanours - was, as always under Laurent Blanc, the kingpin of midfield. Forgotten man Florent Malouda - though already in the process of being marginalised at Chelsea - even came on to score the winner.

Then Euro 2012 happened. Not a blow-out of 2010 proportions, perhaps, but a deflating setback nonetheless, and one that exposed scars that hadn't entirely healed. The confusion under which Blanc's tenure ended was encapsulated by the pitiful sight of Marvin Martin and company aiming pot shots at Sara Carbonero in the warm-up to the Euro quarter-final against Spain, like witless schoolboys. Petty incidents of this nature should not, however, overshadow the huge strides France made under Blanc after the indignity of the 2010 World Cup.

His successor Didier Deschamps is canny enough to know not to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Hugo Lloris' continued ownership of the captain's armband (which he took for the first time in Bremen) is significant, showing a commitment to continuity. Lloris' sortie to deny Mesut Ozil in the 6th minute here was also indicative of how much he is growing at Tottenham, where decisive charges from his goal are required as part of Andre Villas-Boas' gameplan.

If few definitive conclusions can ever be drawn from a friendly, Joachim Low learned something in Bremen last year - he needed to find a way to play when Schweinsteiger's not around. On that wet night on the banks of the river Weser, it became apparent that for all his excellence, Toni Kroos does not work best as a locum Schweini. They were again faced with a few absences here, including Schweinsteiger again and Borussia Dortmund's effervescent pair, Mario Gotze and Marco Reus. At Euro 2012, Germany never lacked dazzle, but they discernibly lacked leadership. The return of Per Mertesacker helps. Even if he is fallible these days, he has rarely let his country down. He was frequently bamboozled by Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema, but he held on, and his superb block with the very last kick of the match denied Yohan Cabaye a deserved equaliser for the hosts.

Having come tantalising close to getting it right in three successive final tournaments, Low is almost kicking his heels waiting for the next, waiting for Germany to have the chance that the can show the mettle to finish it off when it matters. He has a few things to work on. Ilkay Gundogan was impressive alongside Sami Khedira in midfield, which is good news, with the Dortmund man creating an equaliser early in the second half for the busy Thomas Muller.

There are still questions at full-back, especially in terms of attacking animation. Lukas Podolski's visible exasperation after Benedikt Howedes failed to pick up one first-half pass on the overlap showed how much Lahm is missed on the left, to dovetail with his former Bayern teammate, when he is on the right.

Deschamps, curiously, has the opposite problem. What Patrice Evra adds in an attacking sense has value, but one is frequently left with the sentiment that France are playing with an extra left-winger. Many of Germany's inroads in the first half came down the France left, where Evra often seemed to be missing. The robust Mamadou Sakho and his equally powerful club-mate Blaise Matuidi (who has filled in at left-back for both Saint-Etienne and Paris Saint-Germain) helped their senior colleague out of a hole more than once.

Clearly this left gaps elsewhere, with Ozil finding plenty of freedom in central areas. Unpopular as his name may be in some corners of the Hexagon, M'Vila is frankly missed. Etienne Capoue is a fine player with a couple of strong seasons behind him, but he lacks the technical finesse and nous of Rubin Kazan's new signing. Muller's equaliser was neatly lifted over Lloris after substitute Capoue - also pursued by QPR during the January window - carelessly ceded possession. In the first period, Mertesacker had burst through a deathly-quiet France midfield to provide Ozil with another chance that he skewed over.

Still, Ribery's renaissance is perhaps the biggest change for either team in the last year. In Bremen, he had been desperately poor despite a full vein of domestic form for Bayern. Admired in Germany for his sterling work in the Bundesliga, his adopted home country was horrified to see what looked dangerously close to a busted flush of an international career.

His first burst to the line, after a Mathieu Valbuena corner was only half-cleared, showed how much France can rely on him these days. The first real surge of noise from the stands came in the 26th minute, when the wide man's storming run past his team-mate Lahm ended with Valbuena driving just over the bar in the centre of the goal.

He popped up on the right in the second half to give Howedes a chasing, enjoyed some gentle push-shove with club-mate Kroos off the ball that showed the fire is back in his belly in the blue shirt and was even denied an equaliser towards the end by a fine Rene Adler save. It was during a Ribery-inspired spell of pressure that Ozil expertly carved the chance for Khedira to toe in the winner against the run of the play.

At least France have the consolation of knowing that they have come back from friendly disappointment before in a match that counts; when they followed defeat here at the Stade de France with a rousing draw in Spain. Germany are unlikely to be tested so in qualifying, so Low needs to train a key eye on his men to make sure they stand up when it counts.

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