Having stumbled through and then hobbled out of UEFA EURO 2008, France are anxious to make a fresh start. Back in June, the former world and European champions could only manage a goalless draw with Romania before losing 4-1 to the Netherlands and 2-0 to Italy.
That early exit has left the side desperately searching for confidence, a new image and higher standards on the pitch. French Football Association (FFF) officials elected to keep coach Raymond Domenech in place after the tournament, but insisted on "redefining the conditions of exercise of his mission and the practical details of national team management". As Les Bleus prepare to set out on the road to South Africa this weekend, FIFA.com attempts to answer the big questions surrounding Domenech and his men.
What did FFF officials want to change?
"Generosity, humility, commitment and accessibility" - that is the new credo at FFF headquarters. Given another chance by his employers on 3 July, Domenech must stay faithful to those principles, which explains the rethink with regards to the team's media policy. From now on, the players must co-operate more with the press and supporters, while the coach himself is expected to keep as low a profile as possible.
Domenech has spoken of being "proud to contribute a little to the happiness of the French. That relationship between ourselves and the public allows us to experience some fabulous moments." For his part, Sidney Govou said: "It's up to us to take the first step. We have to break through certain barriers." Meanwhile, Samir Nasri explained: "We need to project a better image. The squad has to get on well together and be happy to meet up."
What is the role of Alain Boghossian?
Answering a call from Domenech himself, the former defensive midfielder and 1998 FIFA World Cup™ winner will attempt to communicate his natural joie de vivre, "but not just that". "Alain isn't coming along to put on a clown show," explained the coach. "He's coming to bring his considerable abilities and immense experience. That's a real bonus for myself, the staff and the players." He is also likely to serve as an intermediary between the senior players and the younger generation destined to take over the reins between now and 2010.
How has the team changed?
Lilian Thuram and Claude Makelele have retired, while Willy Sagnol, Francois Clerc, Franck Ribery and captain Patrick Vieira are all injured, giving Domenech the perfect opportunity to turn to youth. Between the sticks, Steve Mandanda will wear the gloves, with new Lyon signing Hugo Lloris waiting in the wings. Between them they share an average age of just 22, almost unthinkable for international goalkeepers, but their talent is undeniable. The defence has been reworked too, starting at right-back where Bakary Sagna takes over and rising star Rod Fanni has been called up as understudy. Eric Abidal, Patrice Evra and Gael Clichy all start out on equal footing at left-back, while the central pairing of Philippe Mexes and William Gallas appears to be well established. This parternship has received the backing of Lilian Thuram, no less, despite a shaky first showing in the 3-2 friendly win in Sweden.
Who are the certain starters?
Whether France operate a 4-4-2 or 4-3-3 formation, Jeremy Toulalan and Lassana Diarra look certain to be handed defensive midfield duties. Behind them in the queue, Alou Diarra and AC Milan summer recruit Mathieu Flamini will need to work hard to earn more playing time. In attack, Domenech is spoilt for choice, but stand-in skipper Thierry Henry, Karim Benzema and Ribery, when he returns, ought to feel their places are safe. That leaves Nicolas Anelka, Florent Malouda, Govou, Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Yoann Gourcuff to jostle for the one or two remaining berths.
What are the chances that France will not qualify for the 2010 FIFA World Cup?
Les Bleus will find out very quickly if they can hope to qualify from European qualifying Group 7. Henry and his colleagues travel to Vienna to face Austria on Saturday, before hosting Serbia at the Stade de France four days later and taking on Romania in Constanta next month. In other words, they tackle their three most dangerous rivals right from the start, with just one automatic qualification place on offer. If the Germany 2006 runners-up come out of those contests with less than five points, nerves could well start to fray at the team's Clairefontaine base.
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