One point from two matches is all that France have mustered so far at the FIFA U-17 World Cup Korea 2007. All is not lost, since a victory against Japan in the final Group D match would practically secure les Bleuets a safe passage into the Round of 16. Nevertheless, rather than the results themselves, it is the inability of his players to reach their true potential which is of most concern to François Blaquart.
Despite suffering a 2-1 loss to Nigeria in their opening match, the Tricoloresdominated for large parts of the game, both in terms of possession and goal-scoring opportunities. Even so, defensive lapses meant that they were unable to stifle the physical presence of the African champions. ";We only have ourselves to blame if you compare the scoreline of that match to the way we played,"; the French technician told FIFA.com in the aftermath of the defeat. "My players' qualities are also their greatest weakness. They like to play with the ball at their feet and that sometimes causes us problems. For the first goal, we shouldn't have tried to shield the ball or play it out of defence; we should have just cleared it for a corner or a throw-in".
With the French defenders at sixes and sevens, Nigerian striker Macauley Chrisantus pounced to snaffle the rebound after goalkeeper Joris Delle had blocked the initial goalbound effort. "We then managed to get back on equal terms but instead of stepping up a gear, we slipped up again," continues Blaquart. "We conceded that second goal just as we were beginning to take control over the game. We need to avoid repeating errors like those in the next matches."
From bad to worse
The coach's message appeared to have hit home from the very first minutes of the match against Haiti. The Mini-Bleus were head and shoulders above their inexperienced opponents and it was no surprise when Damien Le Tallec opened their account with a goal on 13 minutes. However, things went downhill from then on. Despite a number of promising chances, les Bleuetsfailed to kill off the match and ultimately paid the price. François Blacquart was forced to watch on helplessly from the dugout as yet another lapse in concentration by the French rearguard let in Valdo Normil, who was promptly upended in the box by the French keeper. Delle might have had a chance to atone for his error during the resulting penalty, which was taken twice as two Haiti players stole into the area for Peterson Desrivieres' first strike. However, the defender held his nerve and converted the second penalty.
Even so, France's nightmare had only just begun. Just minutes after the restart, defender Badis Lebbihi received two bookings in quick succession and was given his marching orders. No sooner had he left the pitch than Henri Saivet struck the crossbar and Emmanuel Rivière was foiled by the post, all within the space of ten seconds. It seemed that luck had deserted Blaquart's charges once and for all, but in fact worse was to come in the 89th minute when France were awarded a penalty. Up stepped captain Said Mehamha, bravely accepting the chance to hand victory to his team. He took a run up, picked his spot and promptly sent the ball high into the stands.
The France coach ran the gauntlet of emotions from the touchline while his players endured a torrid 90 minutes. "Getting pegged back to 1-1, having a player sent off, hitting the post twice and missing a penalty...it's a lot to put up with in one match, not only for us on the bench, but for the lads out on the pitch as well. Unfortunately, we failed to respond to thechallenges." When asked whether he feels let down or annoyed by his players, the former Nantes, Saint-Etienne et Sochaux coach has no hesitation. "Deep down I'm angry. I can't complain about the incidents which took place during the match because they could have happened in any match. What displeases me most is the lack of desire from my players."
"Playing to their full potential"
With an exceptionally talented squad featuring the likes of Paris St Germain's Mamadou Sakho, Stade Rennais' Yann Mvila and Le Tallec, as well as Lyon's Mehamha, the experienced coach no doubt expected greater composure from his players in the heat of battle. "I don't have any concerns about their ability, I know they have the quality to win this kind of match. The difficulty lies in getting them playing to their full potential. Also, I think that they still lack a mean streak. I'm lucky enough to have a squad of 20 highly talented players, but not one stands out from the pack. Perhaps that is the edge that we're missing."
Conscious of his squad's weaknesses, Blaquart is just as clear about the possible solutions. "First and foremost, I'm hoping that our luck will return! We could have won our first two matches, instead all we have is a solitary point. We've been through it all before in the European Championship, when we qualified with a draw and a defeat from three matches. Today we're in the same boat." As for the mental strength of his squad, the former understudy to Jacques Santini is now looking for his players to buck their ideas up. "Right now we have no choice, it's win or nothing. For us this match will be our first final."
When France take to the field this Saturday in Goyang stadium, they will meet a familiar adversary in the form of Japan. "They're dangerous opponents but we have the beating of them,"; explains Blaquart. "We know their game plan very well, especially since they draw much of their inspiration from what we are doing in France, and also because their style of play is much like our own." So how does he intend to secure victory in this make-or-break encounter? "Rather than focusing on our opponents' weaknesses, I'd rather we tried to remind ourselves of our own strengths."
Les Bleuets will have to pull out all the stops and rediscover their qualities to escape from their current predicament. Otherwise, François Blaquart will undoubtedly have lots more to say to his players on the long trip home to Paris.