Poor France goes out without a bang at Euro 2012
DONETSK, Ukraine (AP)
France came into the European Championship boosted by a long unbeaten run and widely regarded as a dangerous outsider.
They leave with a whimper.
The French fell apart on the field and in the dressing room in their final group game against Sweden, missing an opportunity to avoid Spain in the quarterfinals, and then went down without a fight in Saturday's 2-0 loss to the defending champions.
The negative manner in which France approached the match with Spain, and the expletive-laced rant midfielder Samir Nasri aimed at a journalist afterward, underlined how the team lacked both confidence and composure.
''You're always disappointed when you lose a match, and after going out of the European Championship, you're even more disappointed,'' France coach Laurent Blanc said.
Only fleetingly, against England and Ukraine, did France show any flair. Four points from the opening two games set up the Sweden match perfectly and gave France a great chance to win Group D.
Instead, France was battered all over the field by Sweden and lost 2-0. The team only showed passion when it was too late - taking their frustrations out on each other in a heated dressing-room bust-up that Blanc said affected his preparations for Spain.
''The levels of intellect and talent in that team are catastrophic,'' former France captain Jean-Michel Larque said Sunday on RMC radio.
Blanc had a chance to show the football world just how far his team had come by taking the challenge to Spain. Instead, he picked a defensive lineup that, remarkably, included two right backs. The plan worked for 19 minutes until Xabi Alonso headed in a cross from the left.
''At 1-0 down we needed two goals to qualify, and that's never easy against a team that has 60 percent possession,'' Blanc said.
Although Spain actually only had 55 percent of possession, the French had no answer. The fact that Alonso was left totally unmarked to score showed how little they were prepared to fight. Neither left back Gael Clichy, midfielder Florent Malouda or left winger Franck Ribery were even close to Alonso when he scored.
Blanc made questionable choices in defense and attack. He persisted with star player Karim Benzema throughout the campaign, but the much-acclaimed Real Madrid striker failed to score at Euro 2012.
Olivier Giroud, top scorer with 21 goals for French champion Montpellier, made just three brief substitute appearances - the longest only 15 minutes.
Benzema played 90 minutes every time except for the Ukraine match, where Giroud replaced him with France already winning 2-0.
Blanc also may have shown too much loyalty to center half Philippe Mexes. Only when Mexes was suspended did Laurent Koscielny get his chance against Spain. The Arsenal defender played with great composure and fellow center back Adil Rami benefited from his calming presence, rather than having the anxious Mexes distracting him.
France could have done with Koscielny against Sweden, where Zlatan Ibrahimovic totally dominated Mexes.
Blanc also failed to contain the overwhelming euphoria after France had beaten Ukraine to record its first win at a major tournament since the 2006 World Cup semifinal.
''If we hadn't got past the group stage, it would have been another fiasco,'' Benzema said. Ribery joined in the self-flattery when he added that ''France hadn't won a tournament match for six years ... we have to hold our heads up high.''
After abject performances at Euro 2008 and the 2010 World Cup, hopes were raised too quickly that France had truly turned the corner.
In reality, Ukraine had played very poorly. Blanc may have been better served keeping his players in check and urging them to focus on winning Group D, which he never did, preferring to downplay the importance of avoiding Spain.
With no set objective in mind - winning Group D at all costs - France's players were left to judge how they should approach the Sweden game. The result was a disastrous performance on the field, ending a 23-match unbeaten streak, and a horror show in the dressing room.