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Football: Romantsev must rouse Russia or face early exit

A RUSSIAN side with their backs against the wall take on the world champions France, without the injured Zinedine Zidane, in a Euro 2000 Group Four qualifier in St-Denis today.

The Russians must win at the Stade de France to stay in contention for the European Championship finals and avoid missing out on two successive major international tournaments. They failed to reach last year's World Cup in France and now lie fourth in their group, five points behind the joint leaders and three adrift of Iceland. Only a victory over France, unbeaten in 19 matches since losing a World Cup warm-up 1-0 in Moscow 15 months ago, will maintain Russia's interest in the competition. "We have to play attacking football," their coach, Oleg Romantsev, said.

With the former Millwall striker Sergei Yuran, who hit the only goal in the friendly in March 1998, off form, Romantsev is pinning his scoring hopes on a new discovery, Alexander Panov, who scored twice in St Petersburg's 3-1 Russian Cup final win over Dynamo Moscow last week.

Russia scored nine goals in their last two qualifiers against the two weakest sides in the group, beating Armenia 3-0 away and Andorra 6-1 in Moscow in March, boosting their goals record to 13-8. But they have since struggled in a 1-1 draw in a friendly against Belarus. To add to their problems, the Russians are without two stalwarts at the back, the injured Benfica goalkeeper Sergei Ovchinnikov and Roma's Dimitri Alenichev.

The French coach Roger Lemerre faces his third successive match without the Juventus playmaker Zidane, who is recovering from knee surgery. The French, who won 3-2 in Moscow in October, are joint top of the group, along with Ukraine, on 11 points each.

Expecting Russia to try to hit his side on the break, Lemerre said: "We always have difficulties against closed defences. That was already the case in Iceland and Andorra. It is even more the case against teams like Ukraine and Russia."

France dropped points in a 1-1 draw in Reykjavik in September and then at home to Ukraine in a 0-0 draw in March. Four days later, they struggled to beat Andorra 2-0.

Youri Djorkaeff and Robert Pires are in line to share the playmaking duties with Emmanuel Petit and the captain, Didier Deschamps, behind them in support. Roma's left-back Vincent Candela comes in for the injured Bayern Munich defender Bixente Lizarazu in the only forced change from the side that played Ukraine.

In attack Sylvain Wiltord of the French champions Bordeaux, who finished the league season as top marksman with 22 goals, should make his second start alongside Arsenal's Nicolas Anelka, who scored the opener in Moscow. "I don't think we'll score as many goals," said Anelka. "The Russians can't allow themselves to lose."