Djorkaeff on goal mission

Stephen Brenkley discovers that the Cantona-less French are ready to strike

Considering the fuss generated by Eric Cantona's omission from the French squad for the European Championships, the man charged with filling his role obviously must be quite a player. Youri Djorkaeff is the man, and he is quite a player.

"He likes to come from positions just behind the front striker. He is quick, he can dribble and he can shoot powerfully with both feet," said Gerard Houllier, the technical director of the French Football Federation and former manager of the national team. "He is wonderfully accurate and I should say he's at the peak of his career."

Such a glowing testimony, in view of Cantona's splendid form, may tempt those hearing it to suspect that, well, the French would have to say that. But Houllier does not deliver such judgements lightly. He is supported by a series of performances for France in which Djorkaeff has grown increasingly influential.

During the first six matches in France's qualifying group for Euro 96, Djorkaeff was only once in the starting line-up. In four of them the side were scoreless. In the last four matches, Djorkaeff, entrusted with a place in the team, scored six times. He also forged a significant liaison with Zinedine Zidane. Flourishing in a deep midfield role, Zidane moves forward quickly and alertly, and has frequently found Djorkaeff awaiting him.

"One way to put it is to say one passes and the other scores," said Houllier. "That may be oversimplifying because Zidane can score and Djorkaeff can pass, but it has an essence of truth."

Djorkaeff was born to football but his success has hardly come overnight. His father, Jean, played for France in the 1966 World Cup in England (he was right-back in the side beaten, 2-0, by the hosts) and it was pre-destined that Youri would become a professional.

He started steadily, but no more. At Grenoble and Strasbourg there were many signs of potential, but few of its being fulfilled. Djorkaeff advanced at Monaco but, at 28, has come into his own at Paris St Germain in a side no longer boasting the talents of George Weah and David Ginola. Despite his goals, they stuttered towards the end of the season and missed out on the lea- gue title for the second consecutive year, this time to Auxerre.

They will have to try to regain it next year without him. He has signed for Internazionale in exchange for a fee of 40 million fra- ncs. There can be no surer yardstick of his standing in the game.

"Youri was always a promising player," Houllier said. "He was always considered to be one that would do well. It seems to have happened somewhat later than expected but he might be the better for that. There is no doubt that he's ready."

Djorkaeff can be expected to lurk behind the front man - probably Christophe Dugarry - and forage from midfield, his understanding with Zidane likely to be a key factor in successful attacks. He might lack some of Cantona's presence but his pace has so far proved invaluable.

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