Football: France aware of the danger

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The Independent Online
FRANCE WILL be looking to prise open a tight Ukraine defence without their key creative force Zinedine Zidane in a crucial European Championship qualifier at the Stade de France tonight.

France must beat the Ukrainians, who have won all three games, to take over as group leaders after being held to a draw in Iceland in September. A defeat would leave the home side five points adrift.

"We must absolutely avoid the point of no return as far as this first place goes," Roger Lemerre, the French coach, said. "A defeat for us would open a gap that would be difficult to cover."

Zidane, the World Footballer of the Year, injured his knee playing for Juventus against Olympiakos in the European Cup last week and could also miss France's match against Armenia at the same venue on Wednesday.

The French are well aware that Ukraine have talented strikers in Dynamo Kiev's Andriy Shevchencko and Serhiy Rebrov, but that their opponents' main strength lies in their defence.

"They're a very solid team at the back," Emmanuel Petit, the Arsenal midfielder, said. "They work a bit like a funnel. They draw their adversary in and then hit back with very quick counter-attacks." Petit has twice met Dynamo Kiev, who make up three-quarters of the Ukraine team, playing for Arsenal in the Champions' League.

Lemerre said: "They play with all the rigour of the Kiev school. In fact, this team is nine players plus two. Nine players at the back who leave nothing to chance.

"They were narrowly eliminated from the World Cup and Ukraine have a standard equivalent to that of Croatia."

Croatia, who finished third in last year's World Cup, reached the finals by beating Ukraine in a two-leg play-off.

The two countries have almost identical goals records over their last 10 internationals - France 17 for, 6 against, Ukraine 16-7. It is undoubtedly France's toughest match since they beat Brazil 3-0 in the World Cup final- but they are confident they can overcome the absence of Zidane, who scored their first two goals against the Brazilians.

"We have managed to beat the Brazilians, then the English at their own game," Petit said. "We've shown we know how to adapt."

Lemerre is keeping his hand hidden as to who will stand in for Zidane and will not name his team until just before kick-off.

It should contain one change from the side which started in the 2-0 victory over England at Wembley in a friendly last month.

Three players appear as chief candidates for two positions with the World Cup men Robert Pires and Christophe Dugarry, Nicolas Anelka's probable strike partner, likely to get the nod.

Ukraine look set to make just two changes to the side who beat Armenia 2-0 at home in their last qualifier in October.

Volodymyr Mykitin, of Shakhtar Donetsk, returns at left-back while his club-mate Serhiy Kovalyov could take over in midfield from the Torpedo Moscow forward Serhiy Skachenko.

Skachenko, scorer in two of Ukraine's qualifiers, stands by to step in up front for Rebrov, who pulled a muscle in the European Cup quarter- final against Real Madrid last week.

France (probable): Barthez; Thuram, Desailly, Blanc, Lizarazu; Deschamps, Petit; Pires, Djorkaeff; Anelka, Dugarry.

Ukraine (probable): Shovkovsky; Luzhny, Golovko, Vashchuk, Mykitin; Popov, Kovalyov, Gusin, Kosovsky; Shevchenko, Rebrov or Skachenko.

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