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May 17, 2006

Finals bow for Zidane et al

Raymond Domenech has a reputation as a quiet man who often takes his lead from astrology. But few in France see anything in the stars other than to doubt his ability to restore the French pride lost in their last two tournament outings.

Injury to Zinedine Zidane and overconfidence cost les bleus their world crown in 2002, while in Portugal two years ago they were mugged - just like everyone else - by the Greeks.

The past glories of 1998 and Euro 2000, the latter probably being their apex, were relied on too strongly as veterans like Marcel Desailly and Bixente Lizarazu proved that age is a barrier at international level.

As departing coach Jacques Santini crossed the channel to join Spurs for a short spell of highly amusing Franglais, the golden generation retired en masse after Portugal.

Domenech, who beat off the claims of Laurent Blanc, Jean Tigana and Glenn Hoddle to the job, supposedly as a result of support from 1998 mastermind Aime Jacquet, had one hell of a rebuilding job to do. Though he could still call on the talents of Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Patrick Vieira.

Despite the presence of such stars the French got off to a shaky start in qualifying group 4. Even with the leading scorers from both Serie A and the Premiership, goals seemed impossible to come by at the Stade de France. Three stultifying 0-0 draws with Israel, Ireland and the Swiss led for calls for Domenech's head, who meanwhile had also managed to fall out with Arsenal's Robert Pires.

As far as the French footballing public went there was only cure to the the malaise: Zidane. And, edged on by an at-first mysterious voice in the dead of night that told him to return (which turned out to be his brother), 'God exists and he has just returned to international football and to the France team,' as Henry put it on the announcement.

Vieira too was only too happy to hand over the captaincy to everybody's hero. And Zidane's return persuaded pals Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram to come out of the cold. The Faroes were dispatched with ease, and a vital win was secured in Dublin where, in a battle of the veterans, Roy Keane was bested by the Real Madrid man.

An away draw in Berne and at last a goalrush in Paris against Cyprus completed the rescue job. But the doubts about Domenech remain. Accusations of the powerbase lying with the players can be clearly made, and the build-up showings have been poor.

A lucky win over Costa Rica, the return of 0-0 against the Germans and a shocking defeat to the Slovakians at home did not bode well. It may have been only Domenech's first loss as France boss but the wins total of just eight in 19 is the telling statistic for the critics.

The Slovak goals in that defeat came after Zidane went off at half-time, leaving even less doubt as to who the team will be based around. Henry, the irrestible force in the Premiership is a pale shadow for his country, where his athleticism and talent has never been yet used to its fullest in nearly 80 appearances.

Domenech's chosen formation is to play Zidane behind the twin strikers of Henry and Trezeguet, colleagues since they were teenagers at Monaco but who are yet to form much of a partnership internationally.

Zidane will be supported by a three-man midfield of Patrick Vieira, Claude Makelele as the defensive shield with likely PSG veteran Vikash Dhorasoo or Lyon's Florent Malouda as the other man of a very narrow midfield.

The full-backs are thus expected to go forward in support. Willy Sagnol is a committed regular and the selection of the uncapped marauder Pascal Chimbonda, late of Wigan but likely to be elsewhere come next season, shows Domenech's expectations here.

The left-hand side is more of a question. Lyon's Eric Abidal looks the incumbent though William Gallas' versatility could be called on if a more defensive approach is required in this role. Equally versatile, though far less reliable is Mikael Silvestre, whose recent role as a Manchester United first choice has seen him picked ahead of Patrice Evra, his club colleague since January.

Thuram, himself with experience of the defensive flank, will be in central defence after a fine season for Juventus. Premiership fans may well guffaw at the presence of Jean-Alain Boumsong alongside him. Perhaps the Newcastle man will fare better without comedy partner Titus Bramble. This defence looks to have nowhere near the presence of the golden era of Desailly-Blanc-Lizarazu-Thuram.

Indeed, this squad just does not burst with the strength of just a few years previous. Should Zidane break down then there seems to be no contender to step into his shoes. Though, that said, experiments with Djorkaeff, Johan Micoud and Christoph Dugarry always failed when the great man was in his pomp.

Domenech has ignored the claims of playmakers like Pires and Barcelona's Ludovic Giuly, who paid for a lack of opportunities at the Nou Camp.

Perhaps the man who could provide the verve to either complement or replace Zidane is the uncapped Franck Riberry, the Marseille midfielder with a touch of the Cantonas about him.

For many, Ligue 1's leading performer of 2005/6, he is a fleet-footed winger with a penchant for art and fighting. He'll never be a heart-throb but his passion and sorties down the wing could add needed impetus to a team that has an air of being somewhat world weary.

Another attacking reserve who may get a chance is Sylvain Wiltord, who, after an initial fall-out with Gerard Houllier, was a key man in Lyon's fifth successive title win. Domenech will probably field him on the flanks, though he played alongside Henry in the bore draw with the Germans.

The endless enigma of Nicolas Anelka was again odd man out after the squad was trimmed down from 28 to 23. He lost out to Premiership strikers in Louis Saha and Djibril Cisse. Saha had a decent second half of the season for United after recovering from his injury troubles while Cisse, seemingly unloved by Rafa Benitez at Liverpool, scored to get his team back into the FA Cup Final, showing the instinctive touch that once made him the leading domestic striker in France.

The accusation of the old guard exerting control has been given further credence by the goalkeeping situation. Fabien Barthez has been named as first choice ahead of Gregory Coupet, the people's favourite. Barthez, who is to leave Marseille for the second time this summer, was banned for five months last year.

Coupet performed admirably in his absence. Yet Domenech spoke of turning to the character of the slap-headed one, despite an all-too typical blunder during the friendly with Costa Rica.

To say expectations of a second World Cup win are low in France would seem a reasonable statement. Domenech's implacable nature, which gives little away, has won few friends among a typically passionate media pack.

Almost all hopes, as ever it seems - until he finally hangs up his boots after the tournament, rest with Zidane and his ability to pull one last great tournament out of his creaking form.

The sun will set on the best player of his generation this summer. Zidane has spoken of having seven big games left in him.

Unless his colleagues can come out of the torpor that has enveloped them since those matches with Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark four years then he will not get to play all seven.


  • Any thoughts on this article? Feel free to email John Brewin