Champagne side have to keep sparkle

CHAMPIONSHIP COUNTDOWN: No5 France
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Having set a national record of 20 successive unbeaten matches, France are arguably the form team of Europe. They have several players who have shone this season in Italy and collectively their clubs have enjoyed one of their best seasons in Europe. There is not even room in the national team for Eric Cantona.

So why are Aime Jacquet's side no better than fourth or fifth favourites to win Euro 96? The answer lies not so much in the formbooks for the last two seasons as in those covering the last two decades.

Apart from the 1984 team's glorious victory on home soil in the European Championship, French sides of recent vintage have produced some champagne football that has never quite kept its sparkle to the very end.

Until Euro 96 the French had qualified for only one major tournament, the 1992 European Championship, since their semi-final defeat against West Germany in the 1986 World Cup. Moreover, it is the memory of their showing in Sweden four years ago that urges caution this time around.

Michel Platini's team went into the 1992 finals as one of the favourites after a two-year unbeaten run. They proved a huge disappointment. Under Jacquet, a successful club manager with Bordeaux in the 1980s, the French recently broke the unbeaten 19-match record of Platini's team. Yet if Jacquet is just starting to feel uncomfortable about comparisons with 1992, he has several reasons for optimism.

First, there was the form of French club sides in Europe this season. Paris St-Germain won the Cup-Winners' Cup, Bordeaux reached the Uefa Cup final, a Nantes team weakened by departures performed creditably in the Champions' Cup and all the Uefa Cup sides had their day.

Second, France have never had as many internationals playing at such a high level abroad. In particular, the Serie A experience of Christian Karembeu (Sampdoria), Marcel Desailly (Milan), Didier Deschamps (Juventus) and Jocelyn Angloma (Torino) could prove invaluable in Euro 96.

Next season Youri Djorkaeff (Internazionale) and Lilian Thuram (Parma) will join them in Italy, while Laurent Blanc has gone to Barcelona and the Bordeaux trio of Christophe Dugarry, Zinedine Zidane and Bixente Lizarazu are all seeking new clubs.

Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, France have the look of a team that is peaking at the right time. Most of the squad are in their mid- 20s and improving with every match.

Like the classic French team of the early 1980s, their strength is in midfield. The recent pairing of Zidane, a gifted playmaker, and the dynamic Djorkaeff has given the team real penetration. Their qualities have complemented perfectly the ball-winning and tireless running of Karembeu and Deschamps and could free Desailly to play alongside the highly experienced Blanc in defence.

The French have their eyes on the 1998 World Cup in their own country as much as on Euro 96 and in those circumstances it is perhaps not surprising that Jacquet has opted for younger players ahead of the experienced Cantona, David Ginola and Jean-Pierre Papin. The strikers' roles are set to be filled by two players with only 20 caps between them, Dugarry and Patrice Loko.

Player to watch

Youri Djorkaeff

(Internazionale)

At 28, this attacking midfielder of Armenian-Polish stock is in his prime. An outstanding season with Paris St-Germain, following five steady years at Monaco, prompted Internazionale to sign him this week for pounds 4m. An all-action player who has a sharp eye for goal and also creates openings for others, he scored five times in France's last four qualifying matches. His father, Jean, won 48 caps, including three in the 1966 World Cup.

SQUAD

Goalkeepers

Bernard Lama Paris St-Germain

Fabien Barthez Monaco

Bruno Martini Montpellier

Defenders

Jocelyn Angloma Torino

Eric Di Meco Monaco

Franck Leboeuf Strasbourg

Laurent Blanc Barcelona

Bixente Lizarazu Bordeaux

Lilian Thuram Parma

Alain Roche Paris St-Germain

Midfielders

Vincent Guerin Paris St-Germain

Didier Deschamps Juventus

Marcel Desailly Milan

Youri Djorkaeff Internazionale

Zinedine Zidane Bordeaux

Sabri Lamouchi Auxerre

Christian Karembeu Sampdoria

Corentin Martins Auxerre

Forwards

Patrice Loko Paris St-Germain

Christophe Dugarry Bordeaux

Michael Madar Monaco

Reynald Pedros Nantes

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