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France haunted by World Cup

Group B Preview

Two years ago France began the defence of the World Cup as strong favourites but within a fortnight their dream of retaining the trophy was shattered on the back of poor preparation after an exhausting club season.

They did not score in their three group games, Zinedine Zidane only played in the last match after an injury and the usually unflappable Thierry Henry was sent off against Uruguay.

The French left the tournament with the worst record of any world champions in the 72-year history of the tournament after finishing bottom of their group with just one point.

France now embark on the defence of their European title with an opening Group B match against England on Sunday equally favoured to keep the crown but there the similarities end.

They have lost only once under Tottenham Hotspur-bound coach Jacques Santini, have a fresh Zidane saying he is at the peak of his powers and boast the world's outstanding striker in Henry.

The French face arguably stiffer opposition this time in a group comprising England, Croatia and Switzerland than they did when playing Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark in South Korea but a reinvigorated team inspire fear and respect in their rivals.

England are favourites to join them in the quarter-finals with much hinging on the opening exchanges of the match between the teams at the Estadio da Luz in Lisbon when several Arsenal club mates face each as they so often do in training.

How England centre back Sol Campbell handles Henry or left back Ashley Cole deals with Robert Pires, when the midfielder he normally plays behind at their north London club ghosts over to the right of the France attack, will be critical.

Zidane, meanwhile, will be in the middle looking to find Henry and put England under such pressure that they can not settle in midfield where coach Sven-Goran Eriksson seems to have found the quartet to drive his team to greater heights than their quarter-final exit at the 2002 World Cup.

"I feel I am at the peak of my career," Zidane said last week. "I'm going to be 32 years old and this European championship is coming at just the right time.

"I feel relaxed and fit. But it's not only me, it's the whole team. Unlike 2002, we have had time to prepare ourselves."

France, however, will be under pressure if England can impose themselves with Frank Lampard slotting comfortably into a midfield with an established trio of captain David Beckham, Paul Scholes and, most importantly, 2002 absentee Steven Gerrard.

Gerrard can drive England forward in the manner Patrick Vieira, who considers the 23-year-old Liverpool man to be a better player than he was at the same age, does for France.

Howewver, neither side will make the mistake of disregarding the threat from Croatia, who meet Switzerland in their opener in Leiria earlier on Sunday.

The Croatians look the stronger of the two teams, with the Swiss trying none too successfully to blend older hands like the Yakin brothers, Murat and Hakan, and 101-cap Stephane Chapuisat with youngsters struggling to make the grade at this level.

Coach Koebi Kuhn, who is leading the Swiss into their first major tournament since Euro 96, accepts his team will be among the bookmakers' also-rans but believes they can use that as motivation and is hopeful they can spring a few surprises.

Unfortunately, the Swiss lack tournament experience, genuine pace and the high quality match-winners needed to turn tight matches into victories, so their optimism of reaching the last eight against the odds looks somewhat misplaced.

Whether Croatia can match their 1998 vintage, who finished third at the World Cup in France, remains to be seen but they pose a goal threat with strikers like Ivica Olic, Portugal-based Tomislav Sokota and the in-form Dado Prso.

Prso, who made a name for himself when he scored four of Monaco's eight goals in their 8-3 Champions League victory over Deportivo Coruna on November 5, seems certain to start alongside the pacy CSKA Moscow forward Olic.

Croatia, who endured a roller-coaster qualifying campaign and scraped into the finals with a playoff win over Slovenia, could nevertheless decide the outcome of the group to the extent of dumping one of the favourites out of the tournament.