France Camp Focus – Valbuena’s debut strike leaves Domenech with food for thought

France turned a 1-0 deficit into a 2-1 victory with debutant Mathieu Valbuena marking his first international cap with the winning strike after some good work from Arsenal midfielder Abou Diaby.

Coach Raymond Domenech tested Steve Mandanda in goal but the Marseille goalkeeper did not show enough to merit a starting role at the World Cup despite making a couple of decent saves as the match progressed. Mandanda was at fault for Costa Rica’s opener, taken by surprise due to the tricky bounce of the ball but he still should have at least punched the ball away instead of flapping at it as the strike ripped through the net. With Hugo Lloris on the bench the French supporters will hope the Lyon custodian avoids injury during the tournament.

The tactician chose to start with Jeremy Toulalan, Florent Malouda and Yoann Gourcuff in midfield with both Alou Diarra and Abou Diaby on the bench signaling a potential change in his formation ahead of the World Cup. Domenech had long used a 4-2-3-1 line-up but it appears Lassana Diarra’s chronic illness has led him to change his formation and dispose of his customary strategy which depends on using two holding midfielders. Toulalan was the man charged with playing the role of the defensive midfielder while Alou and Abou Diaby were left on the bench but the duo were introduced in the second-half with the latter particularly showing some neat skills over the ball.

Abou Diaby went on a marauding run through the heart of the Costa Rica team picking up a pass just before the halfway line and surging forward, exchanging a quick one-two before invitingly sliding the ball for Valbuena to hit the winner from a distance. The two substitutes injected Les Bleus with energy and life providing a boost in terms of movement, touch on the ball and passing. The Gunners midfielder and the goal hero both deserve to be given ample time to prove their worth as prior to their introduction most of France’s threats were coming from the predictable source on the left wing in the shape of Franck Ribery. The Bayern Munich star was behind the equaliser in the first-half after his shot was deflected in by an opposing defender while he could have scored on another opportunity. Ribery’s pace and skills will certainly come in handy considering fellow starters up-front Nicolas Anelka and Sidney Govou left a lot to be desired.

France veteran Thierry Henry was a second-half substitute yet his performance justified why Josep Guardiola has opted not to use him in the latter stages of the La Liga season and down the stretch when Barcelona were successfully defending their league title. Henry remains a better option than Anelka but he clearly lacks match fitness due to his limited playing time with Barca and the only solution would be for him to get more playing time which is rather difficult considering the World Cup is rapidly approaching. While the French relied on Henry and David Trezeguet, two established goal-scorers, during World Cups 2002 and 2006, the current squad does not have a proven scorer besides the aging Henry as Anelka has rarely duplicated his club performances on the international scene.

With South Africa 2010 looming large, it is looking more than ever that Domenech will have to rely on Ribery not just for inspiration but for the goals as well while surprise inclusion Valbuena might benefit from the degree of uncertainty involving the attacking line-up to enhance his chances of earning more playing time. There are already some growing comparisons between the promising Valbuena and star man Ribery who played at one point in his career for Marseille. In a similar position to Valbuena four years ago, Ribery was called up by Domenech for Germany 2006 and managed to convince the Coach of his quality to book a place in the World Cup squad and feature in all of France’s games at the competition. The two players can co-exist and start for Les Bleus but the Marseille attacking midfielder’s inclusion in the starting lineup would come at the expense of Bordeaux’s Gourcuff who will have to settle for a bench role. Domenech is not one to shy away from controversy or going against the trend so he could bench Henry just like he did Trezeguet in Germany, or resort to starting Valbuena at the expense of Gourcuff.


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