In Laurent Blanc's opening press conference as France coach in 2010 he said his toughest task would be to establish a new spine: "We need a core to build the side around," he said. "Right now, we barely have a melon pip."
After qualifying for UEFA EURO 2012, Blanc said progress had been made, citing Hugo Lloris, Philippe Mexès, Yann M'Vila and Karim Benzema as four players who had seized their chances. The melon pip had at least evolved into a plum stone.
When those four checked in at Clairefontaine last month, they were still seen as the team's central spine. Things have changed slightly since. Sadly for M'Vila, an ankle injury is likely to prevent him playing against England on 11 June. Mexès, meanwhile, has not been convincing in any of the three preparation matches, and still has to prove he can rediscover top form following a lengthy injury absence.
It is probably not an exaggeration to say that Lloris and Benzema are the only players absolutely certain of starting every game in Ukraine if available. There is fierce competition for places elsewhere. That is positive, of course, but it's vital others step forward and assert themselves.
Franck Ribéry has struggled to replicate his FC Bayern München form at international level in recent times, yet his dynamic, goalscoring displays in the three friendlies were extremely encouraging. A happy, in-form Ribéry would make Les Bleus so much more potent.
Right-back Mathieu Debuchy, centre-half Adil Rami and midfielder Yohan Cabaye are also impressing and well on the way to establishing themselves. That, however, makes just six players – Lloris, Debuchy, Rami, Cabaye, Ribéry and Benzema – who are, in my opinion, emerging as sure-fire bets for Blanc. Florent Malouda, if he can maintain his current form, will join that list.
Elsewhere, Alou Diarra is favourite for the anchor role in M'Vila's absence, Patrice Evra must shake off competition from Gaël Clichy, Laurent Koscielny is applying pressure on Mexès, and Samir Nasri is threatened by Hatem Ben Arfa, Mathieu Valbuena and Jérémy Ménez. Ironically, the player in the best form, Olivier Giroud, looks sure to begin on the bench, with Blanc reluctant to play two strikers.
This is the team I expect to face England: Lloris; Debuchy, Rami, Mexès, Evra; Cabaye, Diarra, Malouda; Nasri, Benzema, Ribéry.
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