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Dec 3, 2011

French fancy their chances

It goes without saying French football owes a big debt of gratitude to Zinédine Zidane, from his headers to help win the World Cup to his silken contribution to the Euro 2000 success and even to his retribution-filled coup de boule - his 'head-butt' - on Marco Materazzi. Zizou added another reason for Les Bleus to be thankful to him when he produced another coup de boule - which could also mean 'ball trick', honestly, it works in French! - by drawing a clement Euro 2012 group for his old mate Laurent Blanc. Friday's L'Equipe featured a cartoon of a quivering France begging Father Christmas - with a sack stocked with goodies such as Germany, Spain and Netherlands - not to "give me presents that are too beautiful." Zidane must have only shaved off the long white beard minutes before going on stage in Kiev.

The scare-mongering of Friday morning - with France in Pot 4 potentially facing Spain or the Dutch, Germany and Portugal - gave way to barely-concealed post-draw relief with a Rooney-less England the most formidable opponent in Group D. 'Les Bleus aren't unhappy' was the view on L'Equipe's website, while the headline on Saturday's hard copy read - roughly translated: 'Thank God for Luck'.

Blanc was measured in his response. "We could have found ourselves in Group B instead of Denmark, and that would have been very difficult," he said, referring to the Danes' misfortune at being the Pot 4 side making up the numbers in the inevitable groupe de la mort. "All the coaches have the same objective: finishing in the top two. Before we look at the respective strengths and weaknesses of this one and that one, we have to bear in mind that the French team has to improve. That's what I'm going to work on first."

After a far-from-convincing qualifying campaign, Blanc is undoubtedly right, though he does seem to have more or less settled on his best starting XI and also must have in mind the vast majority of his squad for the tournament already. A number of them will emerge from the Premier League season before quickly renewing hostilities with on-pitch rivals from the English top-flight as well as club team-mates in the group's opening encounter on 11 June.

England fans, no doubt, will cringe at the very thought of a Euro reunion with the French after seeing Zidane score twice in added time to switch out the lights at an English-dominated Estadio da Luz in Lisbon in 2004. Their faith that Fabio Capello's under-performing men can wreak some sort of revenge will have been further undermined by a 2-1 friendly defeat to the French at Wembley in November 2010. Of course, you should 'never read too much into friendlies', but that hasn't stopped Bacary Sagna doing just that. "Since our win in the friendly, I've been taking the mickey out of my English team-mates quite a lot, and I count on continuing to do that after 11 June," the Arsenal full-back said before easing effortlessly into full anti-Agincourt mode. "Taking on England is always something special when you're French. It's certain that they'll have a lot of fans there, but we beat them at home so it's not a problem."

England will certainly enjoy boisterous backing in Donetsk where France's notoriously fickle and not-particularly-numerous group of supporters will again be led by the legendary über-fan Clément d'Antibes and his cockerel. His first international game as a fan was England's 1982 World Cup win over France in Spain and - if Blanc is to be believed, though he probably shouldn't be - Capello's men will have the edge when they meet 30 years on. "For me, England are favourites," Blanc said, though he then gave more insight into his real thinking on his team's chances: "We're not facing the current three best nations in the first round: Spain, the Netherlands and Germany. We've got work to do, but we're going to see whether we can impose our style."

L'Equipe - equally tellingly - picked out Wayne Rooney, John Terry and Joe Hart as England's key men for the tournament. Perhaps Hart will eventually warrant that accolade, but clearly the French media haven't been paying too much attention to Chelsea's displays of late while Rooney may well not even get to kick a ball - or an opponent - in anger before England are on the plane back home. "That a player of such class is missing could well be good news," Blanc said, rather under-stating the impact of Rooney's absence, while Blanc's former international team-mate, Bixente Lizarazu, said he believed it was best to meet England first so that "we can quickly get into the competition".

The encounter with la perfide Albion will undoubtedly hog much if not all the build-up to the tournament, but Arsène Wenger sounded a note of caution. "France-England could very well finish as a draw, and it's the two other games which will prove decisive," the Arsenal boss told a French radio station. "So we mustn't focus too much on this game but above all concentrate on winning the two others, especially as the opening game is always a cagey one."

However, Blanc will surely be less concerned about going on to face a Ukraine side that promises to be little different to the one a second-string Les Bleus XI swept aside 4-1 in a friendly - albeit with some late goals - in Donetsk only last June. Also, L'Equipe's take on Sweden - "The Vikings can beat anyone" - looks somewhat less credible following back-to-back defeats in friendlies with Denmark and England than it might have done had it been formed in the immediate aftermath of the 3-2 win over the Dutch in October that clinched their spot in the finals as best runner-up.

Still, the French garden is not all roses. The French public seem disenchanted with the side, and a Saturday morning poll in the Paris-based regional paper Le Parisien had 56% of people saying 'non' to France's chances of progressing to the knockout stages. That though could quickly change, but while Blanc and his staff frantically try to find a new training camp for the team to strike in - sorry, train in - after basing their initial plans in Poland, there is a larger elephant in la chambre: that of Blanc's contract.

The ex-Bordeaux coach's current deal with the FFF runs out after the tournament, but FFF president Noël Le Graët has resisted Blanc's calls for him to make up his mind early, risking a repeat of the situation before Euro 2004 when Jacques Santini announced he would be moving to Spurs after the tournament, sucking any motivation from his already-jaded squad. "If I'm staying, my contract has to be extended before the Euro," Blanc declared publicly in October, but his boss responded: "Love affairs that just happen are always the most beautiful."

While Le Graët is likely to be nominated for an Emmy and a BAFTA for that declaration, he also opened the door to a Blanc departure: "Laurent has shown he has all the qualities to lead a national team or a big club. I can't stand in his way." On top of his own contract situation, Blanc is unhappy his extended background staff of some 17 people, such as the team chef, have not been given a share of the €4 million bonus dished out to the squad and Blanc's coaching staff for qualifying. Blanc is apparently trying to convince his players to take a lesser share of the pot to give to those who missed out. If they do, it will show Blanc has rooted out a good part of the self-centred ésprit that ruined France's World Cup. If not, surely he could always just go to Santa Zizou for a hand out.

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