Football: Striking gaps in the French preparations

With just over six months to go before they host the 1998 World Cup finals, France appear strong in all departments - except one. Phil Shaw on the continuing search for a Gallic goalscorer.
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The Independent Online
Saint-Etienne was once Nap-oleon's arsenal and nowadays manufactures tanks. In symbolic terms, it seemed the ideal setting for France to discover fresh firepower ahead of the World Cup finals. Instead, Wednesday's flattering victory over Scotland provided another damp squib for Aime Jacquet's team.

As the French remember fondly from their triumph in the European Championships of 1984, host nations tend to fare well in major tournaments. Viewed in a purely statistical light, France appear to be on course to maintain that tradition next summer. They have now lost just two of their 39 matches under Jacquet, with only England winning in the last 20 games on French soil.

The facts mask worrying signs, however, especially in the striking department. Having called up the heavy artillery in the shape of the two leading scorers in domestic football, Stephane Guivarc'h and Lilian Laslandes, Jacquet must have been disconcerted to find that neither was sufficiently sharp to trouble unduly a Scottish defence lacking its linchpin, Colin Hendry.

It took a full-back, Pierre Laigle, to score France's first, with a generous assist from the Scotland goalkeeper Neil Sullivan. Gordon Durie equalised immediately and might have had a hat-trick before Laigle was fouled in the penalty area. Youri Djorkaeff scored from the spot to secure a repeat of last month's similarly unconvincing defeat of South Africa.

A local crowd weaned on Michel Platini and "les Verts" of Saint-Etienne, who reached the European Cup final 21 years ago, were not won over. When the final whistle sounded, they made their displeasure painfully apparent.

Winning, it appears, is not enough in itself for France, although priorities are liable to change entirely once the rest of the planet arrives in June. Jacquet may well have been right when he said: "Nobody will complain if we win the World Cup final 1-0."

Yet the French look no more menacing or unpredictable in attack than during Euro 96, when feebleness in front of goal cost them dear. Not only did they fail to score in 120 minutes against a modestly equipped Czech Republic in the semi-final, but they could not beat them on penalties either.

That the problem persists can be gauged from the demands for the recall of Jean-Pierre Papin, who was to Gerard Houllier's regime what Gary Lineker was to Bobby Robson's. Now pushing 34, Papin is partnering Laslandes at Bordeaux. Nicolas Quedec, of Espanyol, is a more plausible candidate, but the likelihood is that France will go into the finals with an unproven strike force.

The biggest redeeming feature of the showing against Scotland was the form of Zinedine Zidane. Despite being followed everywhere by Billy McKinlay, the Juventus playmaker demonstrated much of the cunning, vision and expertise on set-pieces that persuaded Jacquet he could afford to ditch Eric Cantona.

Zidane received good support from Didier Deschamps, the player once derided by Cantona as a near "water carrier" - while Arsenal's Emmanuel Petit provided an industrious foil for his more gifted colleagues.

On paper, defence is France's strongest suit. Lilian Thuram is arguably the best and quickest defender in Serie A , with Marcel Desailly not far behind. Which made it all the more surprising that the Scots carved them open on several occasions, pointing up a lack of pace in Laurent Blanc which could be more ruthlessly exploited by the South Americans and Africans.

For all that, Craig Brown cautioned yesterday against writing off France as potential world champions. "I still think they could be real contenders," the Scotland manager said. "The dress rehearsal is never the final production. They've got an excellent coach plus some magnificent players like Zidane, Deschamps and Desailly - it's just that they lack a cutting edge."

So why the jeers and whistles? "It may have been that they expected us to be cannon fodder because last time we were in France, in Paris eight years ago, we got beaten 3-0. Another reason is perhaps that the fans see club sides like Strasbourg beating Rangers and Liverpool without anyone in Jacquet's squad. So they expect the national team to wipe the floor with us."

The French cockerel may be carping rather than crowing right now. But with seven months to go, the precedents suggest there is still time for a goalscorer to emerge. There were, after all, barely four months left before the 1966 finals when England first took a chance on a certain Geoff Hurst.

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