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Whatever the French is for last-chance saloon, Thierry Henry and his team-mates are in it.
They must beat Togo on Friday in Cologne to avoid first-round elimination for the second consecutive World Cup. And if Group G rivals South Korea and Switzerland draw, the French will probably have to win by two clear goals.
If France could have picked any of the sides in Germany to play in such circumstances, it would probably be the Africans. They would have been one of the weakest of those here even if the conduct of their campaign had been as efficient as the German railways and as harmonious as the Berlin Philharmonic.
That has not exactly been the case. The trouble is the French would have run them mighty close for any notional World Cup 2006 Calamity Jane award. Plus, these days, they rarely look capable of scoring more than one goal against anybody. This may be pardonable when you have a player as ineffectual as 1998 World Cup winner Stéphane Guivarc’h leading the line, but it takes some doing when your team includes the world’s best striker.
The problem is partly one of morale; the squad look
ill-at-ease with their coach and each other. Raymond Domenech is a likeable enough man, steeped in football culture. But on the touchline here he has exuded the impotency of a country schoolmaster trying to stop his class running riot.
The team has also lost its public, and the players know it. Before last Sunday’s draw with South Korea, I thought I had stumbled on a noteworthy scoop: the only French fan who still believed in his team. “Two-nil to France,” he said when asked to predict the result. Then the bombshell: “Actually, I’m Swiss.”
It has to be said that for a country that bequeathed the world René Descartes, the logic of the disillusioned French support is hardly unimpeachable. “We want [former coach] Aimé Jacquet back,” said another fan. “But eight years ago you were all booing him until he won the World Cup,” I retorted. A Gallic shrug. “I know.”
Nonetheless, this has been a significant factor in the team’s spiral towards mediocrity, as the players seem to feel personally betrayed by it. You have to wonder how much these ageing millionaires now care how far they go in this competition. If their desire really has dissipated then the decision to stick with them, rather than following the examples of Marco van Basten and José Pekerman by leaving some big names behind, will have been proved wrong. But then, Domenech has neither the stature as a footballer of Van Basten nor the coaching record of Pekerman.
The good news from the French perspective, though, is that Henry’s dander is up. “The goal of Patrick was three yards inside [the goal],” he exclaimed with anger and understandable exaggeration after the Korea match. This was in reference to the first-half header by Patrick Vieira that clearly crossed the line, unnoticed by officials, before being scrambled away. This would have given les bleus a
The Arsenal skipper is good enough to do the necessary against Togo almost single-handed. But he would benefit from an out-and-out strike partner to distract defenders. This is why Louis Saha or David Trézéguet ought to start tonight. The Juventus striker, restricted so far in this World Cup to a two-minute cameo, is an ugly player when juxtaposed with Henry’s balletic grace. Next to Miroslav Klose, though, he could pass for Nijinsky – and it is the
German who has the best World Cup scoring record of these three.
The absence of the suspended Zinedine Zidane, a more enigmatic figure than ever at this World Cup, should make room for the extra striker. But Domenech should also accommodate both the poise of Florent Malouda and the industry of Franck Ribéry. This would mean relegating another old head, Sylvain Wiltord, to
Eric Abidal is also out, which could mean a starting place for Mickaël Silvestre. And with Willy Sagnol’s crosses so far imbued with all the pinpoint accuracy of Jason McAteer, Domenech may be tempted to give a run to Pascal Chimbonda. France will expect to spend most of tonight’s match on the attack, after all, and the vim that the Wigan right-back displayed in his debut Premiership season might make all the difference.
If Henry can shake some of his team-mates out of their sulk, a clear win against a Togo side already in disarray and out of the tournament, should be a formality. Though it is out of their hands, a big score could yet see France top the group. That would probably mean avoiding Spain. Under normal circumstances, that should act as a big incentive.