RPT-FEATURE-Soccer-French latest golden generation yet to shine
(Repeats feature first moved at 0002 GMT)
By Diane Falconer
PARIS Dec 14 (Reuters) - Samir Nasri is emerging as one of Arsenal's leading players but other members of the "golden generation" tipped to take over from the Zinedine Zidane era have yet to prove themselves on a regular basis, say French soccer observers.
In 2004, Nasri and his gifted peers were thrown into the spotlight when they won the under-17 European championship, prompting much excited discussion about their future promise.
Six years on, however, none of them took part in the World Cup in South Africa and French fans are still waiting for many of them to live up to that promising start.
Karim Benzema, who turns 23 on Sunday, has been struggling for regular action at Real Madrid and is belatedly putting a difficult spell behind him.
AS Roma's Jeremy Menez, also 23, is showing glimpses of his skills after a few seasons of underachievement.
"They still need to improve in a lot of areas," former French ace Jean-Pierre Papin told Reuters when asked about the 2004 generation. "They need to play more with their clubs, score more goals. France does not have any players at the best level yet."
"At the moment, they are not at the top of the game," added former World Cup winner Christian Karembeu. "They need to be more consistent."
France were knocked out in the first round in South Africa after taking only one point from three games. Coach Raymond Domenech was fired and forward Nicolas Anelka, at the centre of a revolt by players, was banned for 18 matches.
Replacement coach Laurent Blanc, charged with rebuilding the team, has already found fault with Benzema for arriving late at a training camp in October and over his diet.
Benzema arrived at Madrid from Lyon in the summer of 2009 in a 35-million-euro move. Since then, he has regularly been linked with a move away from Madrid following disappointing performances at the Bernabeu.
Before his Champions League hat-trick against Auxerre last week, he had managed just three goals in all competitions this season. In October, he was even declared "dead" by sports newspaper Marca after a poor display in the King's Cup.
"Karim has to understand that he is not playing by himself, that he has to be more of a team player and work really hard, especially in training", Real Madrid coach Jose Mourinho told www.fifa.com.
"I expect a lot from him," Mourinho added. "I want him to be as good as or even better than the player I first saw at Lyon. I know how gifted he is and that is why I push him."
Just like Benzema, striker Menez can give off an annoying air of indifference on the pitch. Since 2008, he has been showing flashes of his tremendous talent intermittently with Roma and is only now beginning to find his rhythm.
"The mental side of my game is improving and I am getting more consistent. I have made mistakes but I have learned from them, and when you are young you think that you know everything," he told the media.
Question marks remain however over Lyon's Yoann Gourcuff, dubbed "the new Zidane" when still a teenager. Since his brilliant 2008-09 season with Bordeaux, he has struggled to confirm his talent and has left many wondering if he was a one-hit wonder.
Two weeks ago Italian Paolo Maldini, his former team mate at AC Milan, lambasted Gourcuff in the press, criticising his attitude and lack of effort.
"Gourcuff in Milan was wrong 100 percent", Maldini was quoted as telling L'Equipe newspaper. "His problem here was his behaviour. He did not show an intelligent way of managing himself. When he played here, he did not want to be part of the group.
"He did not start studying Italian right away. He did not want to work on tactics. He was not always on time. A lot of things happened, things that I cannot talk about. But he knows what he did."
Gourcuff moved to AC Milan from Stade Rennes in 2006 at the age of 20, but remained on the fringes of the team during his two years there before returning to Ligue 1 in 2008.
"When he came into a game, he did not commit fully," Maldini added. "Less talented players were respected at Milan because they gave everything. He did not do that, and he knows it. At one point, he had become an outsider to the group."
(Editing Clare Fallon; To query or comment on this story e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org) (email@example.com; +33 1 49 49 53 70; Reuters Messaging: firstname.lastname@example.org; For the Reuters sports blog Left Field go to: blogs.reuters.com/sports)
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