Football: Old memories spur France

Today's Group B matches are crucial for all concerned. Guy Hodgson reports
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Every nation has its matches it prefers to forget - England as much as anyone - but in recent times nothing opens the mental scars in a Frenchman more than a World Cup qualifier with Bulgaria two and half years ago.

France only had to draw in Paris to ensure their participation in the 1994 finals and at 1-1 with a corner in their favour and the match approaching injury time, a place in the United States seemed assured. David Ginola squandered possession, Bulgaria raced to the other end and Emil Kostadinov scored.

Bulgaria went on to finish third in the United States, while a French team that included Eric Cantona and Jean-Pierre Papin fumed with frustration at home. "I'm still scarred by that memory," Laurent Blanc, the French central defender, said.

It is with the double-edged anticipation of revenge and fear that France seek to extend their 25-match unbeaten run at St James' Park tonight. If one side wins while the Spanish beat Romania at Elland Road, then the loser will be going home.

Group B has been tight as a drum so far, but if any side have suggested they have more to offer it is France, whose elegant play, particularly from Zinedine Zidane and Youri Djorkaeff, has been undermined by an over- eagerness to concentrate on defence once in the lead.

Bulgaria are less subtle, but boast the temperamental talent of Hristo Stoichkov, whose two goals in the tournament have taken his international record to 33 in 63 games. However, he may find opportunities more scarce without Kostadinov, who has only a 50-50 chance of recovering from a hamstring strain.

Still, the Parma striker was on target yesterday at a press conference, when he walked out on Spanish journalists because of their "completely silly questions" and then insisted a Romanian was ejected. "It was not my pleasure to speak to him," he explained. "I will only speak to people who tell the truth."

A draw will probably be enough for the French, whose qualification record in the last two European Championships and 1994 World Cup is slightly better than Bulgaria's should that come into play, but Aime Jacquet will not be tempted down that route. "Look what happened last time," he warned.

No team have failed to live up to their billing more than Spain, who arrived in England with a burgeoning reputation and have proved to be a team with limited ideas once they get near the opposition penalty area.

Indeed, it is difficult to reconcile their possible qualification against Romania's certain dismissal after the first two matches, in which Spain have twice had to score late goals to secure draws while the Romanians have had no luck at all.

Against France, one goalkeeping error lost them the match, while they would have got a draw against the Bulgarians if the linesman had spotted Dorinel Munteanu's shot off the bar had bounced a foot over the line. It has left an urgent need to prove they are a better team than their record suggests.

"We don't want to go home without a point," Gheorghe Hagi, the Romanian playmaker, said. "We want to go home to our fans with our heads held high and the only way we can do that is by getting a result against the Spanish."