Football: France wary of Saudi surprises

Coach Aime Jacquet will maintain his cautious approach despite an impressive start.
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The Independent Online
SHAKESPEARE HAD it about right in Henry V: first, the capacity for the English to behave badly while touring abroad; second, the ability of the French to move instantly between despair and bombast and back again - although, in the tabloid age, this has equally become an English characteristic.

Last week the French media turned the Domaine de Montjoie (the domain of the joyous mountain), headquarters of the French squad, into a kind of Chateau Despair. This week, after a simple victory 3-0 over a disappointing South Africa, some of the French journalists at the Centre Technique National du Football here are radiating a sense of high expectation; of qualification for the last 16 virtually assured; of an excellent French squad guaranteed to go far in the French World Cup.

Through all this, Aime Jacquet, remains calm, undemonstrative, even mildly depressive. The manager of the France squad is a most un-French Frenchman; this is perhaps why the nation, and the nation's media most of all, have refused to warm to him. On the eve of tonight's game against the tough, but limited, Saudis in Group C, Jacquet, tall, slight, grey, priest-like and older than his 56 years refused to take anything for granted. Yes, a victory would almost certainly assure France of a place in the next round. No, the Saudis have little that should scare the French.

But "attention" Jacquet warned: this is a typical "match piege" or booby- trap match: the kind of match designed to give pride a fall. The French team - he refused to discuss it but almost certainly the same 11 which finished against South Africa - would play with "confidence but also with caution", he said. In other words, do not expect a feast of goals and then insult the team - and me - again if you do not get them.

The French media demand not only victory but victory with style. In a sense, this is an admirable approach. But it is not one which fits easily with the character of Jacquet who, spiritually at least, should be the manager of a Yorkshire side in the Nationwide Third Division. His teams tend to play as he speaks: with great precision but without flamboyance; never ducking a challenge, but never elaborating.

What did he expect from his team for tonight's game? He wanted, he said, "more imagination in certain phases of play" but most of all he would be looking for the "principal, indispensable qualities" for success - "effort, effort and more effort".

The great remaining concern of French fans and French journalists remains goalscoring. The first-choice defence - Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Laurent Blanc, Bixente Lizarazu - is unbeaten in its last four outings.

The midfield has an embarrassment of choice. Zinedine Zidane, Didier Deschamps, Emmanuel Petit are the men in possession but Christian Karembeu and Patrick Vieira would the strengthen the heart of many of the 31 other teams.

Up front, despite the three goals against South Africa, the French remain far from terrifying. Two of the goals in Marseilles were own goals (one later awarded to Thierry Henry). The other was scored by Christophe Dugarry, the man the French media love to hate. Dugarry, once a prolific scorer for Bordeaux, had disastrous seasons with Milan and Barcelona before making a low-key return to Marseilles.

Before the South Africa game he had scored two goals in 21 matches over four years for France, a dismal toll for any striker. Jacquet's persistence in picking him, ahead of supposedly more inspired and younger players, such as Nicolas Anelka and David Trezeguet, is the main source of contention with the press.

It is typical of Jacquet, they say, to persist with a failed, hard-working player like Dugarry while excluding the talents of David Ginola and, before him, Eric Cantona. Dugarry's furious, media-directed joy at scoring, after coming on as a sub, was one of the highlights of the South African game.

He is likely to start tonight. Stephane Guivarc'h and Trezeguet have only just recovered from slight injuries. This has not prevented Trezeguet - the 20-year-old who scored the thunderbolt goal for Monaco which put Manchester United out of the European Cup - from complaining to the media that he should be in the starting line-up.

Challenged to comment yesterday, Jacquet risked raising the spirits of the international footballing dead. "Talk is all very well," he said. "But players must deliver on the pitch. We've had a lot of cases like that. People who speak a great deal off the pitch but on the pitch, in international games, don't do very much." Who can he have been thinking of? Here are some clues. One is appearing in shampoo commercials and commenting on matches for TV; the other is about to appear in a movie co-starring with a monkey.