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Jul 24, 2010

Vive la Blanc revolution

The French have a history of doing revolutionary things, and Laurent Blanc's decision not to call up any of the players that were on 'the bus of shame' when les Bleus refused to train at the World Cup is almost up there with lopping the head off Louis XVI. It was the hapless king's dilettante wife, Marie Antoinette, who declared, 'Let them eat cake', and it seems Blanc has taken a leaf out of the Queen's book with a devil-may-care ditching of every single player who rebelled in South Africa.

• Blanc suspends World Cup squad

The players who went on strike in Knysna have underlined time and again their unity in the face of the French FA's decision to give Nicolas Anelka first shout on the duty free at Johannesburg airport - now they will be unified by the common experience of watching their country play football without them. The fact that Blanc's maiden international as coach is a friendly in Norway on August 11 does draw some of the sting - no Euro 2012 qualifying points up for grabs - but it remains a strong message unprecedented in European football.

It is not as if the players hadn't been warned though. Media reports for the last week have mooted the possibility of Blanc making such a move, and the man himself suggested a tidal change of tsunami proportions when speaking to the press for the first time in his new capacity. "The image of French football suffered a major blow," was how 'Larry White' summed up the strike, before adding that he was "looking for a core of one, two, three players, and later four or five which will guarantee the behaviour and values which an international should show at all times. Therefore, it won't be the core that was in South Africa."

While the suitably chastised Patrice Evra & Co. get the beers in, put their feet up and sit back for 90 minutes, the question remains: Just who will they be watching? The bad news for the Norwegians is that, despite Blanc leaving some decent players at home, Raymond Domenech already did that when he named his 23 men to fill that 'bus of shame,' because France are not exactly short of quality in reserve.

The excellent Stephane Ruffier, the Monaco goalkeeper who ironically was on that bus after being flown out as a non-playing replacement for Bordeaux's Cedric Carrasso and who has - post-World Cup - cast doubt on the unity on the barricades in South Africa, is likely to find himself between the posts. Lille's Mickael Landreau, one of the un-Magnificent Seven dropped from Domenech's original list of 30 named prior to the tournament, and Auxerre's Olivier Sorin, who helped make the Burgundy club's defence the meanest in Ligue 1 last season, are also viable alternatives to don the gloves shed by Hugo Lloris.

Given the problems Domenech had in deciding what his best back four were throughout his six-year debacle, perhaps the opportunity to start with a clean slate is exactly what Blanc needed. Another of Domenech's pre-World Cup drop-outs, Rennes' Rod Fanni, has already shown promise on the international stage at right back, while Bordeaux left-back Benoit Tremoulinas, who was propelled into the club's first team by the new France coach himself, has been one of les Girondins' most consistent and effective performers in the last two seasons. Centre back has been the main preoccupation of the French national side since Blanc's partnership with Marcel Desailly was broken by the former's retirement, and appropriately it now falls to him to try and fix it. The raw materials are there with Lille's Adil Rami, the eternal 'great blond hope' Philippe Mexes, another Blanc protege, Michael Ciani, and Arsenal new boy Laurent Koscielny all willing and able.

Midfield looks equally well-stocked. A genetic disorder aggravated by altitude meant Lassana Diarra missed out on tarnishing his image in South Africa and he should hold the midfield alongside Rennes' up-and-coming centre-of-the-park-terrier, Yann M'Vila, who came perilously close to winning the 'Pascal Chimbonda/Bafetimbi Gomis Golden Sub's Bib' for the surprise inclusion in a major tournament squad, only for Domenech to dash his hopes when whittling down the final 23. Lille's Rio Mavuba and Auxerre captain Benoit Pedretti have both resurrected their once-flagging careers and deserve a second bite of the international cherry, while Mavuba's club team-mate, Yohan Cabaye, blends both graft and guile.

Blanc showed at Bordeaux his predilection for a playmaker, and in the (temporary) enforced absence of Yoann Gourcuff, the ex-Manchester United defender will no doubt opt for a like-for-like replacement with Samir Nasri of Arsenal the most obvious candidate. To some a surprise exclusion from the World Cup squad, Nasri is a far more polished performer than the uber-hyped Hatem ben Arfa, though Lorient's €15 million-rated French Under-21 international Kevin Gameiro would also be worthy of a run-out against the Norwegians.

Nice forward and current West Ham United target Loic Remy, Paris Saint-Germain's beanpole Guillaume Hoarau and Lyon new boy Jimmy Briand are all viable candidates to lead the line, though the stand-out choice, Karim Benzema, may be another that feels the brunt of Blanc's missionary zeal for a cleaner-cut team.

Like reported strike agent provocateur and wannabe trade unionist Franck Ribery, the Real Madrid forward has missed training this week because he was locked up by Paris police over their alleged involvement with an underage prostitute. Government ministers and the newly-installed French FA's interim president, Fernand Duchaussoy, have publicly stated their opposition to players in the duo's predicament representing their country, while Blanc's new press attache has extolled the new coach's desire to see three elements reintroduced into the team - "pleasure, rigour and discipline." Benzema's alleged over-indulgence in the first area is likely to mean that his knuckles will also be rapped as he hopes to escape the rather more painful three-year jail sentence and €45,000 fine he and Ribery could face.

Just how long will this go on for though? Friendlies are fine for appeasing public opinion and laying down markers, but September sees six potentially crucial points up for grabs against Belarus and - more trickily - in Bosnia-Herzegovina, the first steps on the road to what Blanc, the French FA and the French public hopes will be redemption at Euro 2012.

The fact that Blanc has chosen to 'waste' what would have been a useful preparatory outing for those more taxing encounters shows he is serious about, as Jean-Pierre Papin put it, "giving some credibility back to the role of coach." However, it is also telling that he is reportedly not behind the three-man panel set up by the French FA to investigate the incidents in South Africa as he looks to punish his naughty schoolboys and then get their minds back on their work.

"One thing is certain - he can't get rid of everyone," added Papin. "You can give people a second chance, and the players know they've been stupid." Lloris provided proof of that very sentiment when he admitted on Thursday that the strike had been "an enormous mistake", and he will undoubtedly be back as will Evra, despite the demands of Blanc's former international team-mate, Lilian Thuram, to never allow the Manchester United defender to again represent his country. Blanc has even opened the door for Anelka, saying: "If he's the best in his position [he'll play]. It's the same for everyone."

So expect to see many of those who had a ticket to ride on le bus de la honte return as pragmatism recovers the reins from principles. The fury of the public will have been assuaged by Blanc's dramatic gesture, though, and he can then go about carrying out his own French football revolution. If he succeeds in doing that, he'll have both had his cake, and eaten it.

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