France impressing on their road to hosting Euro 2016
Francois Hollande must feel relieved tonight. For at least a few hours, the whole of France will stop talking about the president, his problems and his struggles.
Instead, the country will talk about its football team, which picked up where it left off 52 days ago at the World Cup in Thursday's friendly against Spain. This time, their good performance was rewarded with a win.
While all the headlines in the past three days have been about the book written by the ex-girlfriend of Hollande -- in which she dishes the dirt on him, the (still) struggling French economy and political unrest or the discontent over the new school system -- the France football team is providing a much-needed reprieve for the president and everyone else.
To be fair, it had been a while since the national team's start of the season has been so eagerly awaited. The French have fallen in love with Les Bleus again after their impressive World Cup in Brazil, and the country couldn't wait to see them back in action.
Fifty-two days is a long time, and a lot of things can change in that span of time. Didier Deschamps himself decided not to change anything -- almost. Twenty of the 23 players in this squad were in South America. Had Olivier Giroud and Laurent Koscielny not been injured and Mickael Landreau not just retired, it would have been 23 of 23.
Thursday's friendly versus Spain at the Stade de France was a question of keeping the momentum from the World Cup and proving that it was not a fluke. Hosting the Euros in two years' time represents an incredible opportunity for French football. That journey started on Wednesday night in Paris, and it started well.
Unsurprisingly, Deschamps started almost the same XI against Spain than he did against Germany in the quarterfinals two months ago. Moussa Sissoko replaced Yohan Cabaye and the formation changed from a 4-3-3 to a 4-2-3-1, but for most of the game, the spirit was the same and the performance too: good in transition, explosive, pacey and solid defensively.
Of course, Spain had decided never to shoot on target -- they registered just seven shots, none of which hit their mark -- which makes life easier as an opponent. Still, France deserved credit. Les Bleus started well; they created chances for Karim Benzema early and looked strong on the counter-attack. Their transition was strongest from the right, where Sissoko was surprisingly good, while forays to the left and Antoine Griezmann were disappointing.
The first 30 minutes of the second half, though, were even better. Benzema scored five minutes after the break that was wrongly ruled offside, Mathieu Valbuena wasted an opportunity 15 minutes later, and finally, on the best move of the night, Deschamps' men opened the scoring.
It was a move "made in Brazil," typically the kind of display Les Bleus put on at the World Cup. Valbuena started the move, finding Benzema on the edge of the area, who then involved Sissoko, before Valbuena received the ball once more and provided the final ball for Loic Remy to smash home. The whole thing was slick and beautiful, from Valbuena's first touch to Remy's superb finish.
It was a well-deserved lead and, even if the final 15 minutes were littered with Spanish chances and a penalty shout, a deserved win. Of course, this was not as important for Spain, who kick off their Euro qualification on Monday against Macedonia, as it was for France. Vicente del Bosque left some of Spain's key players on the bench -- Iker Casillas, Jordi Alba, David Silva -- and at times France struggled to get the ball back, but overall, it was a very promising performance.
"There was some tiredness, but we kept going, we made the efforts," Deschamps said after the match. "I am happy even if we can be more precise. We have kept the desire and the enthusiasm of doing things together." He was right. The main thing to take from this game is that, once again, France looked like a proper team, a unit. They attacked together and defended together. If there was just one thing to keep from the World Cup, this was it -- and they did.
Thursday was also the first game since Franck Ribery announced his international retirement. At this rate, we will soon start regretting that he hadn't done it before. We saw it in Brazil and again Thursday in Paris: The team plays better without him. Valbuena is a changed man, as is Benzema now that the style of play is much more fluid and varied.
Someone needs to take Ribery's place as the leader of the group, and we had confirmation on Wednesday of who this is going to be: Paul Pogba. If you were following along on Twitter, you would have see dozens of Vines with some of his skills. Some were obscenely good, I have to say. But more than that, he bossed the midfield and controlled the game. He worked so hard, led the team, created movement and chances, played long and short and was even disciplined. He lost a dangerous ball early on but never made the mistake again.
He was outstanding and is only 21. He has the talent and the broad shoulders to carry this team and become its leader, on and off the pitch; something that Valbuena or Benzema can't do because they don't have the personality for it. Pogba does.
Despite the win, Deschamps has work to do. There are things to improve and some questions to answer for sure. The left side of Patrice Evra and Antoine Griezmann was poor, and is the 4-2-3-1 really more suited to France than the 4-3-3? Is the fact that Raphael Varane and Mamadou Sakho aren't starting for their clubs a worry? Can Pogba consistently carry this team into a big tournament?
This is not the finished article, far from it, but it is a good start to a two-year cycle of friendlies and qualifying to prepare for their Euros. Back in Paris, they'll be hoping the cycle will end on July 10 with Hugo Lloris lifting a big trophy at the Stade de France -- where it all began Thursday night.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.