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Joker brings best out of French pack

French football fans might claim they already had a joker in the dug-out, so it was to general surprise that it took a second comedian to coax the best out Les Bleus against the Republic of Ireland on Wednesday.

Coach Raymond Domenech has reportedly become a marginal figure since the return of Zinédine Zidane, Lilian Thuram and Claude Makélélé and, even in his finest moment to date, the bushy-browed technician had his thunder stolen - by a radio impressionist.

On the eve of the match, Gérald Dahan called Domenech and Zidane in the guise of hospitalised Président Jacques Chirac. He asked a favour of the French squad - to put their hands on their heart during La Marseillaise. 'We'll do it, we'll do it,' Zidane insisted.

And do it they did, belting out the anthem with rare gusto before reeling off their most committed performance since Euro 2004, claiming a crucial 1-0 away win. The unsuspecting Bleus failed to smell a rat in spite of 'Chirac's failure to slag off British food even once, yet remained unembarrassed when told about the trick.

'I found that solidarity, that demonstration of unity, beautiful,' said Domenech. 'It's a shame it happened like that because it was a great moment for the French team, but I don't regret it. I think it was good.'

England fans currently lambasting David Beckham and Sven-Göran Eriksson for the humiliating defeat in Northern Ireland might wish to redirect their ire at former professional prankster Jeremy Beadle.

Had he entered the England dressing room in full traffic warden's garb, and threatened to clamp the assorted personalised Ferraris, Aston Martins and Bentleys parked at Heathrow airport, there might have been more urgency in the team's performance.

Still, you to hand it to Domenech. He may be presiding over one of the most insipid teams in French history, but he still had enough confidence in Thierry Henry not to bother watching the Arsenal man's winner in Dublin.

While an arthritic-looking Saint Zizou hobbled round looking all of his 33 years, notorious big-game bottler Henry popped up with an absolute gem to secure their first qualifying win against a team other than the Faroe Islands or Cyprus.

Just over twenty minutes remained when Henry let fly with a speculative 25-yarder. Cue much cringing in the French dug-out, one might think. Not so.

'I didn't see the ball go in,' claimed Domenech. 'I saw it leave Titi's foot, I saw the keeper off his line, I thought 'that is 100% goal' and I looked at the clock, I was so sure of myself.'

The 1-0 win leaves France second in the group, behind Switzerland on goal difference. Two matches remain, and a draw or better against Switzerland in Berne next month should leave the path clear for qualification.

Yet even the tubthumping-est sections of the press are urging caution. After all, they have been here before. In 1993, France went into their last two games needing just a point to reach USA '94, only to combust in incredible fashion; losing at home to Israel and Bulgaria.

On the domestic front, it's business as usual with Lyon on top of the table and Olympique Marseille in complete disarray. OM are bottom after five games, and have yet to claim their first win. They travel to tricky customers Sochaux on Sunday night with coach Jean Fernandez already fighting for his job.

Monaco also have their share of problems following a stuttering start to the season and failure to reach the Champions League group stage. They scored just three times in their first five Ligue 1 matches and the strain has started to show, with old hands Flavio Roma, Gaël Givet and Lucas Bernardi publicly questioning Didier Deschamps' summer signings.

Having been tipped in these (and other) pages as potential champions at the start of the season, Deschamps' side will already be nine points off the top unless they can stop the Lyon juggernaut at the Stade Gerland on Saturday.

Paris Saint-Germain playmaker Bonaventure Kalou was given a taste of what might happen if PSG fail to win a trophy this season, after he was targeted by Ivory Coast fans angry at Sunday's 3-2 World Cup qualifying defeat by Cameroon.

'There's a real climate of insecurity over there,' Kalo explained. 'If they had caught me in the street, I don't know what they would have done.

'I'm not sure if I'll go or not if I get called up for our last qualifier in Sudan. My mother doesn't want me to play for the national team anymore and I'm thinking it over. The critics are targeting me and it's starting to get out of hand.'

If Kalou's mother finds out just how fickle the Parisian supporters are, she'll have young Bonaventure back home in a jiffy.

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