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May 12, 2008

France: Gold blend

The French national team head to these European Championships as one of the favourites to lift the trophy in Austria/Switzerland.

Having mentally recovered from defeat in the 2006 World Cup final - to Italy on penalties - and the retirement of commander-in-chief Zinedine Zidane Les Bleus are once again ready for an assault on a major title.

Omens bode well for the French; the last time they reached the final of a World Cup they went on to win the subsequent European Champions, Euro 2000, two-years later. The difference then, of course, is that Les Bleus actually won the World Cup in 1998, unlike the aforementioned penalty defeat at Germany 2006.

And that is not all that differs from those heady days of simultaneously holding the world and European championships; the team also bears scant resemblance to that which united a nation eight years ago. Only four players that played a part in the Euro 2000 final played any part as France embarked their qualification campaign for Euro 2008 against Georgia.

However, despite the changing faces, and an embarrassing couple of defeats to Scotland, head coach Raymond Domenech put together a resilient squad that eased through qualifying thanks to a sturdy defence and the goalscoring prowess of Thierry Henry.

The French had to settle for second place in Group B behind Italy but they did take their chance to avenge defeat to the Azzurri in the World Cup final.

Having got qualification off to a perfect start with a 3-0 win away to Georgia - thanks to strikes by Florent Malouda and Louis Saha as well as an own goal by Malkhaz Asatiani - France beat the Italians 3-1 in Paris to gain a smidgen of revenge.

Sidney Govou scored either side of half-time, with Henry getting in on the act with the other - the first of his six goals in qualifying which made him the group's top individual scorer.

France came back down to earth with a bump a month later when they slipped to a 1-0 defeat to Scotland at Hampden Park but rallied to embarked on a four-match winning run to help them take control of the Group B.

The French proved their strength in depth when Henry was sidelined as Anelka stepped up take on the burden of leading the line and he starred in France's commanding 2-0 win over Ukraine at the Stade de France in June.

With a seeming glut of strikers to choose from Domenech overlooked long-time servant to Les Bleus David Trezeguet for two Euro 2008 qualifying matches and the Juventus forward threatened to quit the national team.

Despite Trezeguet leading the goalscoring charts in Serie A, Domenech reacted the same way he had previously dealt with an outspoken Anelka and continued to overlook Trezeguet. Although the 30-year-old striker did make an ineffectual return in a friendly against England once qualification was secured his continued presence was always unlikely.

France ground out a hard-fought 0-0 draw with Italy in an intense game of few chances in Milan before again succumbing to the Scots in disappointing fashion four days later at the Parc des Princes.

Once more the French bounced back as Henry scored to equal Michel Platini's France record of 41 international goals in a 6-0 win over the Faroe Islands and then broke the record four days later in a 2-0 win over Lithuania. Henry ended the qualifying campaign with a new record of 44 goals for France.

But despite his goals it is not Henry that now gets the French public excited. The 25-year-old forward Franck Ribery is bestowed with that honour after really making his mark on the international stage over the past two years.

The tricky winger has enjoyed an amazing debut season with Bundesliga champions Bayern Munich and there is now an air of expectation whenever he receives the ball at his feet - for club and country.

In the absence of Zidane the former Olympique Marseille player has been elevated to the status of the golden boy of French football and consequently must carry the burden of being the primary attacking force in Domenech's team - not to mention being labelled the 'New Zidane'.

The spotlight may have been thrust upon Ribery but far from being overawed he has revelled in the attention to become one of the best players in Europe this season. The Bayern winger has great close control, a superb final ball and having added goals to his repertoire he is being tipped to light up the Euros.

France coach Domenech, who was promoted from the Under 21 set up in 2004, has added the youth and exuberance of Ribery, highly-rated Lyonnais forward Karim Benzema and 20-year-old attacking midfielder Samir Nasri - who has also been likened to Zidane - to the considerable experience of 36-year-old Lilian Thuram, 33-year-old Sylvain Wiltord and the like to construct a formidable side.

His team are rightly tipped as one of the favourites to win this summer's tournament and Domenech will be desperate to erase the memory of Euro 2004 when France bowed out to eventual champions Greece in the quarter-finals.

Expect France to progress from the 'Group of Death' and anything less than an appearance in the final will be deemed a disappointment.


• If you have any thoughts you can email Dominic Raynor.

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