Football: France set for frosty welcome

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The Independent Online
FRANCE FACE their first competitive match since their memorable World Cup final victory under new management and still basking in the euphoria that greeted their triumph.

On Tuesday, the French President, Jacques Chirac, presented the entire squad, plus coaching and administrative staff, with France's highest award, the Legion d'honneur. But today the world champions, now under the control of coach Roger Lemerre, are in Reykjavik in Iceland to begin their qualification bid for the European Championship on hostile territory - their first competitive match on foreign soil since Euro 96.

Lemerre, Aime Jacquet's No 2 during France 98, is forced to make changes as a result of the World Cup campaign. The central defenders Marcel Desailly and Laurent Blanc are out of contention - Desailly was sent off in the final against Brazil and Blanc is also banned. Lilian Thuram will move to central defence alongside Chelsea's Franck Leboeuf.

Arsenal's Emmanuel Petit, whose injury-time goal completed a 3-0 final win over Brazil, is also ruled out after undergoing a sinus operation and will be replaced by Alain Boghossian. The new coach has also taken steps to resolve the one problem that Jacquet failed to solve - the search for a goalscorer. He has opted for the Bordeaux striker Lilian Laslandes, who repaid the coach's faith with a goal in the 2-2 draw with Austria.

France's main competitors in the group, Russia and the Ukraine, will meet today for the first time - bearing the weight of 300 years of shared history.

Ukraine will carry the hopes of 82,000 passionate fans at Kiev's Olympic stadium, hoping to see their young nation step out of the footballing shadows of "big brother" neighbours. Russia, led by their Kiev-born coach Anatoly Byshovets, are under probably the greater pressure to wipe away the disappointment of failing to qualify for the World Cup finals for the first time in 20 years.

Both countries, created out of the break-up of the Soviet Union in 1991, face an uphill battle to secure the lone automatic qualifying place ahead of France, and Byshovets has been trying to guard against the emotions attached to what the Ukrainian press has dubbed "The Game of the Century".

He has dropped Alexei Gerasimenko to spare the midfielder the trauma of playing against up to 10 Dynamo Kiev team-mates, and has recalled the veterans Sergei Kiryakov, Igor Dobrovolsky and Dimitri Kharine, the Chelsea goalkeeper. None has played since Euro 96. Byshovets has stressed experience and cool heads will be vital to fend off a lively Ukrainian outfit spearheaded by the fearsome forward Andrei Shevchenko.

"The game could be decided in the first 20 minutes, with the Ukrainians going all out in front of their screaming fans," Byshovets said. "I know from my own playing days it can be very intimidating for any newcomer. I'll rely on experience."