Football: Jacquet ready for Petit change

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THE Arsenal midfielder Emmanuel Petit is poised to complete a memorable year by earning a place in the France line-up to face South Africa as the hosts kick off their World Cup challenge in Marseilles tonight.

The pony-tailed Petit, a key figure in Arsenal's Premiership and FA Cup double triumph, is set to start in coach Aime Jacquet's team despite, as he admits, having a lot to prove in front of his own countrymen.

Petit, in tandem with fellow Frenchman Patrick Vieira, was the scourge of opposing midfields in Arsene Wenger's all-conquering team and, the season before, was a key member of the championship-winning campaign with Monaco, the club Petit served with distinction for eight years. But when he finally packed his bags for London, Petit had fallen out of favour with the French squad following their dismal failure to qualify for the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

Now the 27-year-old has forced his way back and is set to collect only his 19th cap. "I need to show my value for the team and the supporters and I'm impatient to do so," he said. "My first season with Arsenal must have done some good for me being brought back into the French squad.

"But my country has not played a competitive match for two years and I've only taken part in friendly games. Now it is the real thing.

"It is a very important time for all of us, the public want to know if we are good enough to be a real force. They are still not very sure about us."

It is a mark of Petit's form that he could line-up alongside the Juventus icon Zinedine Zidane and Chelsea's new signing, Marcel Desailly. In fact, France have all the necessary attributes to go far in this tournament - except perhaps a consistent striker.

That is why Jacquet is ready to gamble on Stephane Guivarc'h reproducing the goal-form that made him top scorer in the French league for the past two seasons. The French have relied for too long on the skills of Internazionale's Youri Djorkaeff up front, who favours playing off a striker. And although Guivarc'h has not added to the goal he scored on his international debut - a 2-1 win against South Africa in October - he is expected to get Jacquet's vote.

The South Africans, making their World Cup bow, can be expected to adopt a siege mentality in the opener. The hosts know full well that rugged defenders like Bolton's Mark Fish and Leeds' Lucas Radebe take few prisoners. But Petit said: "The Finland game was a good test for us. They were ready to fight physically and technically and I think the two most dangerous teams in our World Cup group, Denmark and South Africa, will be the same.

"But the first game is often the most important because everybody knows how hard it is if you start with a bad result.

"There will be some nerves and it may be very quiet when we are travelling on the bus to the stadium. It will be unlike what I have grown used to at Arsenal where the players have music and there is a lot of noise until the last few minutes before every game."

Jacquet, in fact, has asked his players to try and relax after two days of intensive study sessions of the opposition's strengths and weaknesses. "We need to focus now but to be calm," Jacquet said. "There is sure to be exploration by both teams at the start of the game but once we can settle it will be technique which wins it."

Jacquet is set to stick with Monaco's Fabien Barthez at the expense of the former West Ham goalkeeper Bernard Lama, who has just confirmed the end of his loan spell in London by re-signing for Paris St Germain.

Vieira could figure as a substitute at some stage tonight in keeping with his most recent international appearances but the Chelsea centre- back, Franck Leboeuf, will almost certainly have to sit out the 90 minutes on the substitutes' bench.