Football: World Cup - France `can go all the way'

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The Independent Online
FRANCE'S STYLISH first-round performances have established them as serious contenders to lift the World Cup for the first time. That is a view supported by Denmark's goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel after what was virtually a French reserve side outclassed the Danes to become the first team to qualify with a 100 per cent record.

"This is one of the best teams I've played against in a long time," said the Manchester United No 1 yesterday. "They did enough to be in control of the game, then they held back and saved energy for their next game. They were strong, they kept the ball really well and they are a very, very difficult side to play against. If they keep playing like that, they can go all the way."

After watching his side trounce South Africa and Saudi Arabia, the coach, Aime Jacquet, made no fewer than eight changes for Wednesday's match. But even the absence of the Juventus playmaker, Zinedine Zidane, failed to prevent the French carving out chance after chance while rarely looking troubled by Denmark's Laudrup brothers.

The performance has left Jacquet with some tough selection choices for Sunday's second-round fixture with Paraguay in Lens.

Patrick Vieira and Emmanuel Petit, the midfield stalwarts of Arsenal's Premiership and FA Cup double last season, both seized their chances to force their way into Jacquet's second-round plans. But the coach is virtually certain to recall his captain, Didier Deschamps, who was rested on Wednesday for fear he would pick up a second yellow card that would have meant an automatic one-match suspension.

That will mean Vieira is likely to step down but Petit was optimistic that he would keep his place after scoring the winning goal against the Danes. "It is up to the coach but I was very happy for the team and with my personal performance," he said. The continued absence of Zidane, who earned a two-match suspension for a red card against Saudi Arabia, is likely to keep Petit in the team.

Franck Leboeuf also impressed against the Danes, playing alongside his new Chelsea team-mate Marcel Desailly. But the defender was resigned to making way for the experienced Laurent Blanc for the second round. "Jacquet has got his idea about the team, so I do not think I'll play in the next match," he said. Despite the plaudits he has won in England with his cool performances for Chelsea, Leboeuf's international ambitions have undoubtedly been handicapped by some hostility from sections of the French press.

France's first-round displays have also thoroughly vindicated Jacquet, whose preparations for France 98 were subject to a constant barrage of criticism from the influential sports daily L'Equipe.

The French coach has spent the last two years ensuring that the high- quality group of players at his disposal can play in several different systems. The price of experimenting was some indifferent performances in pre-tournament friendlies, but the wisdom of Jacquet's strategy was there for all to see against the Danes.