With Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane, France's future looks bright
Let's be honest, France's 1-0 win over Sweden in Marseille on Tuesday evening won't be mentioned in the history books of the French national team. It was a boring affair, Paul Pogba was disappointing for the second game in a row, the newcomers (Josuha Guilavogui, Layvin Kurzawa, Eliaquim Mangala, Dimitri Payet and Andre-Pierre Gignac) were unconvincing and Zlatan Ibrahimovic opted to train with Paris Saint-Germain than be at the Velodrome.
Of course, though, there was Raphael Varane, who is always a joy to watch. Not only was he faultless defensively, but the captain in the absence of Hugo Lloris also scored the winner, his first goal for France.
It's just as well that it came in the last match of 2014 for Les Bleus. What a year it was. Fifteen games played, one defeat (against Germany in Brazil), a new team spirit, new leaders (Varane, Pogba), a convincing World Cup with a place in the quarterfinals, three retirements (Franck Ribery, Samir Nasri and Eric Abidal) and a blossoming relationship with the adoring French public, too. All that in just 12 months. Didier Deschamps has done a fantastic job.
He managed to eradicate the tensions in the dressing room, mostly by leaving at home troublemakers like Nasri, Jeremy Menez and Hatem Ben Arfa. He brought a more disciplined and hard-working approach, he who was educated footballistically by the Italians.
And as we close the book on 2014 in terms of international football, we are already looking forward to 2015. This is the reality of top-level football. You are only as good as your next game.
The next game will be against Brazil on March 26 at the Stade de France. That performance against Neymar & Co. will set the tone for 2015, a year that will get Deschamps and his players closer to "their" Euro 2016. The preparation for the hosts will continue. The manager will test more tactics, more players. He will seek to reaffirm the positives of 2014 and will correct the flaws of 2014 (weakness on set pieces, being more efficient up front, for example).
In addition to the countdown of a French-hosted European Championship and the honeymoon the side are enjoying with the public, there are four points that make 2015 even more exciting for France.
Seeing more of Varane and Pogba
The Real Madrid defender never ceases to impress me. On Tuesday, he had an easy game. He played at 50 percent but everything he did was perfect. And now he can add "goal-scorer" to his repertoire. At just 21, I cannot remember a defender that was so good, so young, apart maybe Franz Beckenbauer. His ascent has been incredible, put into context by the fact that by wearing the armband on Tuesday, he became France's youngest captain in 104 years.
"I like taking my responsibilities like I did tonight," he told me after the game. You know you can rely on him for that.
The same can't be said of Paul Pogba. He was dreadful against Albania on Friday and very average again on Tuesday. Before the Sweden tilt, Deschamps was quite critical of his midfield prodigy.
"Everything is easy for Paul on the pitch," the French boss began. "But between finding it easy and being too easy there is a thin line. Paul has to think about that." Pogba didn't redeem himself. He lost possession too frequently, was not precise enough in his passing and often made the wrong choices on the ball. Of course, he is an amazing talent and is only 21. Similar to Varane, I am not sure we have seen a midfielder so good at such a young age.
Despite his age, Pogba's play has dictated he be one of the leaders, and leaders have to carry the team. It will be his job to do that more consistently in 2015.
Which pair of centre-halves?
Deschamps started yet with another combination at the back on Tuesday. In 2014, six different centre-backs started at least one France game: Varane, Mangala, Mamadou Sakho, Laurent Koscielny, Jeremy Mathieu and Mapou Yanga-Mbiwa. In 2015, if they are all fit and at their best, what will Deschamps do?
Varane is the No. 1, of that there is no doubt. Sakho is the No. 2 in Deschamps' mind. The Liverpool player qualified France for the World Cup almost on his own, and the manager likes the complementary play between the two. They should start against Brazil next March unless Sakho is injured again by then. Koscielny is third choice and not far behind. His red card in the World Cup qualifier against Ukraine a year ago really disappointed Deschamps. However, there could be a way back for him if he shines for Arsenal.
Mathieu has performed adequately, as has Mangala, but they are not at the same level as the other three. Yanga-Mbiwa only played because of injuries, and Kurt Zouma and Loic Perrin did little more than make up the numbers.
What about Ribery?
The Bayern midfielder remains something of a quagmire. He announced his international retirement in the summer, saying that he didn't feel appreciated in France and that he wanted to focus on his club career. It was a surprising decision. Ribery missed out on the World Cup due to a back injury. I was told that he was upset by France's success and the media and fans' assertions that Les Bleus had more balance and more to offer without him.
His retirement sounds more like an ego-driven reaction than anything else. Which means that another reaction driven by his ego could lead him to come back, especially if, for whatever reason, 2015 is not as good as 2014.
Do France need him? I don't think so. Deschamps has found a better balance without him. Offensively, the movement is better and more varied. Karim Benzema has taken on another dimension without Ribery, as did Mathieu Valbuena. This new-found fluidity is not worth jeopardising for Ribery, should he decide he wants to come back one day.
Who could come in?
Next year could see the arrival of new faces and the return of old ones. Twenty-year-old Aymeric Laporte is having a strong season in the heart of Athletic Bilbao's defence. He could face competition from Samuel Umtiti, who won the U-20 World Cup 18 months ago with Pogba (Varane was injured that summer) and is playing well at Lyon. In midfield, Giannelli Imbula has been impressive with Marseille, but his attitude has not been consistently where it needs to be. Nevertheless, Deschamps has him in mind.
Offensively, Paul-Georges Ntep is also in contention. The Rennes winger has everything: pace, skill, power and has been improving quickly. Florian Thauvin is talented, but he will need to be more consistent and efficient with Marseille to get a call-up.
And what about old friends? Clement Grenier has hardly played so far this season but Deschamps likes his versatility. Yoann Gourcuff is in a similar situation. If he can play week in and week out at the level he did against Marseille three weeks ago, then he could be back, too. Abou Diaby is an even longer shot, but for different reasons. If he can get fit and playing regularly then he has a chance. Deschamps is a big fan of his, and 2015 could be his last chance.
Julien Laurens is a London-based French journalist who writes for ESPN FC and Le Parisien. Follow him on Twitter: @LaurensJulien.