HOW NERVOUSLY a nation watched, how nervously France played, held by Paraguay to within six minutes of a penalty shoot-out here yesterday when Laurent Blanc's golden goal, the first of this World Cup, secured a quarter-final place .
Frustrated by Paraguay's negative strategy and heroic defending, France were confronted by the unthinkable possibility of being eliminated from the tournament. The policy of surging from midfield to compensate for the absence of a quick -footed natural finisher founded on the inability to penetrate Paraguay's bravely held trenches and profligate finishing.
The confident air France took into the match soon dissolved into one of growing anxiety as Paraguay threw back attack after attack: non-football perhaps but applied so effectively that the South Americans had gained enough confidence by the second-half to increase the volume of their counter- attacks.
Marcel Desailly's titanic presence at the heart of France's defence, his speed over the ground and fluent interceptions, kept Paraguay's threat to occasional efforts from free-kicks and corners but this was not matched by France's work at the other end of the pitch.
Aime Jacquet described it as the sort of match that can give a coach ulcers: "Paraguay played very intelligently and with great spirit, not allowing us to build any self-belief in our attacking play," he said
The loss of Zinedine Zidane through suspension was soon evident as France grew careless in their build-up, giving the ball away unnecessarily, this failing the reason why they were unable to establish a convincing rhythm.
Ball-carrying speed has been central to their play but without Zidane's hand on the wheel of their attacking swirl it became aimless and therefore unproductive. Chances soon began to slip away, each miss adding to France's frustration.
Sent through by Emmanuel Petit, who looked France's most effective midfielder until he was withdrawn in the second half, Thierry Henry fired into the top of the side netting with the Paraguay goalkeeper and captain, Jose Luis Chilavert, issuing admonishments.
Launching another raid along the left Petit next set up David Trezeguet but this time the subsequent shot flew over Chilavert's goal. Another opportunity, this one again falling to Trezeguet who pulled the ball horribly wide.
Bernard Diomede was the next to miss shortly before Henry staged a marvellous solo effort, running fully 40 yards through a defence that was suddenly caught flat-footed and without cover. Henry and Chilavert was an interesting confrontation. Henry shot, Chilavert was beaten but the ball rebounded off the post.
There was no sign in the second-half that France could pick up the momentum and they even began to lose control in midfield as Paraguay got quickly amongst them.
Jacquet brought on Robert Pires for the injured Henry but he still could not inspire enough movement up front. Off went Petit to be replaced by Alain Boghossian but as the match wore on every French attack was suffocated in a crowded penalty area that called for quicker feet than the coach had available.
It was becoming more and more obvious that Paraguay were playing in the hope that something would come their way in the sudden death of extra time or that victory would come from a penalty shoot-out.
Even then they might have won it, when Carlos Gamarra shocked the French defence with a headed thrust at a free-kick sending it only inches wide of Fabien Barthez's left-hand post.
But Paraguayan legs were going, their attacks now rare as France piled forward in an attempt to avoid the uncertainties of extra time.
The method of attempting to settle matches with a golden goal presents coaches with a dilemma. Can they afford to attack while leaving themselves vulnerable? It led to both teams playing cautiously, restricting the flow of support to the front players.
Possessing an edge both in technical ability and energy France kept threatening, going wide, trying to unravel Paraguay's defence with low centres but time after time the ball was smothered often only a few inches from Paraguay's line.
One attempt was booted desperately clear with Chilavert beaten and then Chilavert plunged to his left to make a fine save.
With time running out, the crowd tense with the suppression of every French attack, fearing the uncertainties of a penalty shoot-out, France finally struck. Trezeguet headed down a centre from the right and Blanc sent the ball past Chilavert with a flourish of his right foot.
Pandemonium broke, Barthez sprinting almost the full length of the field from his goalmouth to join his men in celebration. France were through to fight Italy in the quarter- finals. Relief was everywhere.
FRANCE: Barthez (Monaco); Bixente ( Lizarazu, Blanc (Marseilles), Desailly (Chelsea), Thuram (Parma), Djorkaeff (Internazionale), Deschamps (Juventus), Petit (Arsenal). Henry (Monaco), Diomede (Auxerre), Trezeguet (Monaco). Substitutes: Pires (Metz) for Henry, 65; Boghossian (Sampdoria) for Petit, 70; Guivarc'h (Auxerre) for Diomede, 77.
PARAGUAY: Chilavert (Velez Sarsfield), Arce (Palmerias), Gamarra (Corinthians), Ayala (River Plate), Sarabia (River Plate), Acuna (Real Zaragoza), Paredes (Olimpia), Benitez (Espanyol), Enciso (Internacional), Cardozo (Mecaxa), Campos (Peking Guoam). Substitutes: Yegros (Cruz Azul) for Campos, 56; Caniza (Olimpia) for Paredes, 75 Rojas (Estediantes) for Cardozo, 91.
Referee: Mohamed Bujsaim Al (UAE).Reuse content