"If we have any top-class players, then they'll show it tomorrow." Laurent Blanc's message on Thursday night was clear: the likes of Karim Benzema, Samir Nasri and Franck Ribéry have won trophies with their clubs and are regarded as three of the finest attacking talents in Europe, yet none have inspired their country to senior international honours. The time to start winning matches for France was now.
Halfway through Friday's Group D encounter with Ukraine, nobody had accepted Blanc's invitation. Les Bleus had gone six years and nine matches without winning at a major tournament, and their long-suffering fans must have feared another frustrating night. Then suddenly, in the 53th minute, somebody at last answered Blanc's call. Somebody stepped up to the plate. Somebody took responsibility. That somebody was not Benzema, Ribéry or Nasri. It was the least celebrated of the attacking quartet, a surprise inclusion in the starting XI: Jérémy Ménez.
The Paris Saint-Germain FC winger had been Les Bleus' most dangerous player all night. He had one strike chalked off for offside and was twice denied by Andriy Pyatov from close range. Yet he did not let his head drop. "I told him not to worry," Ribéry later revealed. "I told him he would make the difference in the end."
Ménez can be unstoppable when his tail is up. Anybody who watched him during the last two months of the Ligue 1 season would vouch for that. But he can also disappear from matches if things aren't going his way. "He needs confidence," Blanc noted. "He needs to believe he can succeed at international level. I'm pleased he scored because it will do him a lot of good."
Blanc also pointed out that Ménez has a quality that none of Ribéry, Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa or Mathieu Valbuena truly possess. "He has the speed and the power to run in behind and hurt defences," the France coach said. "That's a rare quality." It is also exactly what was lacking against England – especially when Benzema dropped deep – and it explains why Blanc was so keen to make room for the 25-year-old.
Ménez rewarded his coach's faith with a devastating performance. He seized his chance with courage and talent – and he has made the spot on France's right wing his own.
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