Laurent Blanc's plans to use France's opening UEFA EURO 2012 qualifier at home to Belarus on Friday as a launch-pad for the rebirth of the national side have been hit by bans and injuries to key players.
The new coach is hoping to banish memories of France's abject 2010 FIFA World Cup™ campaign with some rousing attacking performances in the qualifiers, but his hands have been tied by punishments meted out to the supposed ringleaders of the training boycott in South Africa. The French Football Federation banned Jeremy Toulalan, Franck Ribery and Patrice Evra for one, three and five matches respectively, leaving Blanc bereft of likely first-team stalwarts for his first competitive games at the helm.
Blanc is thought to want to build his side around playmaker Yoann Gourcuff, with whom he worked at Bordeaux, but the €22m Lyon new boy is suspended for two matches after he was sent off in France's 2-1 defeat by South Africa at the 2010 FIFA World Cup. Gourcuff's likely replacement Samir Nasri, meanwhile, is out for a month following knee surgery, and Hatem Ben Arfa was not selected after going on strike at Marseille to force through his move to Newcastle United.
"Every player that improves your team's play and the play of the other players is interesting and important," said Blanc. "But I can't replace a playmaker with someone who isn't a playmaker. We'll have to compensate and set the team up differently."
Blanc is likely to keep faith with the central defensive partnership of Adil Rami and Philippe Mexes, who started in the 2-1 friendly defeat against Norway last month, and he says establishing the core of the side is one of his main priorities. "A team is composed of a backbone and that includes the goalkeeper, the two sentinels' (centre-back and holding midfielder), the playmaker - depending on the style of play you adopt - and the centre-forward," he said.
"To form a solid defensive base, you need a complementary centre-back pairing that is efficient and that performs just as well defensively as it does in terms of the construction of the play. It's not easy."
Blanc is keen to instil a sense of pride and respect for the shirt in his players and to that end he invited his former France team-mate Zinedine Zidane to train with the squad at Clairefontaine on Wednesday. Zidane told them that the only way to regain the fans' support was by winning, and Florent Malouda says it is time to draw a line under what happened at South Africa 2010.
"We have to stop lamenting and talking about what happened in South Africa and start talking about our next opponents, Belarus and Bosnia (who host France next Tuesday)," said the Chelsea winger. "The best way to respond is on the pitch. It's the best therapy."
Belarus have only been a FIFA-affiliated country since 1992 and have never qualified for the finals of a major tournament, but manager Bernd Stange believes his side can produce an upset at the Stade de France. "France will be clear favourites on Friday, but I believe we will have chances to clinch a positive result in Paris," said the German coach. "We respect France but we are not afraid of them."
A former coach of Iraq, Stange has a number of selection quandaries to contend with and must choose between long-term first-choice goalkeeper Yury Zhevnov, who is short of playing time at Zenit Saint Petersburg, and in-form Anton Amelchenko of Russian side FC Rostov. The defence is likely to be an all BATE Borisov affair, with Igor Shitov, Sergei Sosnovski, Alexander Yurevich and Maksim Bordachev set to start, but there are concerns over the match fitness of key attacking midfielder Alexander Hleb, who joined Birmingham City on loan from Barcelona on Tuesday.