There could hardly be any better occasion to open the year of international football with this game: France took on Brazil at the Stade de France, the venue where the former beat the latter in the 1998 World Cup Final with two magnificent goals by Zinedine Zidane and Emmanuel Petit securing the tie with a late goal.
While fourteen years ago it was a match that mattered and still matters most to all football players, the World Cup Final, last night it was a match that possibly the players could not care less about, a friendly. Not just a friendly but also the first international game of the year, played on a Wednesday night in February. Expectations were not particular high given the status of the game but considered the opponent were Brazil, it was quite a different matter. So far in thirteen encounters both have five victories with three draws. One of them in 1997 in Lyon saw Roberto Carlos scoring his famous free kick against Barthez. Since then France have never lost against Brazil, either in a friendly or in a tournament. The last victory for Brazil was in 1992 (2-0) at Parc des Princes in Paris. The French team are still in the progress of rebuilding their squad after the nightmare they had in South Africa last summer. Not just rebuilding the squad, also regaining some credibility among the football public is a vital task put into the hands of the capable Laurent Blanc. The same has to be said about the Brazil team. After an inexplicable surrender against Holland in the quarterfinals in Port Elizabeth, Carlos Dunga had to go and has been replaced by Mano Menezes. Since then their record has improved, winning seven out of their last ten matches, albeit losing 1-0 to Argentina in November delivered a blow to their recovery.
Nonetheless, it was an entertaining affair. Almost a capacity crowd saw France trying to get into the game, yet lacking some fluidity and passing movements. Brazil on the other side started sharply and as early as the second minute they had a shot blocked. Karim Benzema seven minutes later had the first effort on goal for France. After that the game that developed saw some quick movements by both teams, alas the final decisive pass was lacking in either forward lines. Brazil looked a little bit sharper than their French opponents. Much to the delight of the crowd trickery was on show aplenty, whether intended or not. At this point the mood on the terraces was far more positive than at last year’s contest with Spain in March. The first twenty five minutes were gone without either side producing clear cut chances, when La Ola rolled round the stadium, among a big cheer of the spectators. At this time the game has become a sleepy one with neither team really urging forward. Brazil looked lacklustre, while France tried but could not fulfil their promise. Gourcuff attempted to pull the strings in midfield but failed to connect to with the forwards. The midfield was immensely overcrowded and effectively prevented the game to become more open and wide. The area between the two D’s looked like a amoeba altering in shape within split seconds but never extending to the wings, making it look like a contracting muscle. Both teams played with a five man midfield, Brazil with a defensive 4-5-1 with Pato the lone striker, while France used two deep lying midfielders behind an offensive line of Malouda, Gourcuff and Ménez trying to support Benzema up front.
The game changed irreversibly after Hernanes deservedly saw a straight red card for a high foot into the chest of Benzema, which had a striking similarity to De Jong’s lunge in the World Cup Final against Spain’s Xabi Alonso. After that France tried to capitalize on the numerical advantage but were denied by the Brazil defence and Julio Cesar in goal.
Both teams returned unchanged and immediately a very open game developed. France now clearly making the game, while Brazil offered a threat when on a counter attack. First it was Benzema who had a shot blocked, which initiated a counter attack that was just stopped before the French penalty box. You could almost sense that there had to be a goal coming any time soon now. Benzeam looked far too sharp up front not to score. And then there it came after Ménez effortlessly went through Lucas and Santos to put in a cross for Benzema who was left unmarked and had no problems to put the ball in from a close distance. Only two minutes later, he could have had another one, but his effort came to nothing. Between the 50 and the 60 minute was the period in which Benzema could have put the game beyond the reach of Brazil but unfortunate for him, he could not deliver.
With twenty five minutes left the game got slower and both teams’ momentum was disrupted by a number of substitutions. This period was marked by almost created chances with passes almost being successful. France failed to convince the crowd now. Backpasses to Lloris were booed and any promising forward movement was halted. With less than ten minutes to go Benzema sent a shot into the St. Denis night sky despite being unmarked. The biggest chance for Brazil came when Hulk was put through but found his master in Hugo Lloris, who saved victory for France with a superbly. Had Hulk scored, it would have been not deserved for Brazil. The final action belonged to France when Rémy, late on for Ménez fired a shot wide form less than five meters.
As a resumee it has to be stated here that France were a much more positive outfit yesterday than compared to last year at the same time. However a lot of work needs to be done. Sometimes there was a lack of focus and concentration which will be punished in qualifying and tournament matches. Defensively they looked solid but Brazil did not offer any aerial threat nor have they been in splendid form. Therefore the real tests are awaiting them. For both teams to become serious contenders in tournaments they have to work hard and refine their passing as well as their movements. The pieces did not fall into place yet to create something special.
Men of the match
Karim Benzema. He deserved the goal and maybe should have had a second one. Worked tirelessly and deserved the applause when he was substituted. Proved that he is better than his role as substitute at Real.
Phillipe Mexès. Secure in defence and always alert when Brazil came forward. Moment of brilliance: attemtped to run off a Brazilian forward, slipped in the process, however, he got with ease and passed the ball on without effort. It looked incredibly elegant.
Hugo Lloris top looked like a pyjama top. Ohterwise the French top looked very nice.
At half time, the ladies toilets had shorter queues than the male loos.