A game too far for Desailly as Zidane takes baton

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The Independent Football

The French have long prided themselves on the smoothness of their transfers of power. When it comes to replacing a manager or a captain, no one does it quite as effortlessly as Les Bleus. Or at least that was the case until Euro 2004.

The French have long prided themselves on the smoothness of their transfers of power. When it comes to replacing a manager or a captain, no one does it quite as effortlessly as Les Bleus. Or at least that was the case until Euro 2004.

Jacques Santini first rocked the boat when he announced that he would be joining Tottenham Hotspur in July, thus forcing the French Football Federation (FFF) suddenly to start looking for a new manager. Two weeks on, and now the ship has lost its captain, too, as Marcel Desailly is almost certain to have started his last game for France. Lilian Thuram and Silvestre will now resume their partnership in central defence against Switzerland tomorrow.

The error-strewn performance during the draw with Croatia was clearly a match too far for the Chelsea centre-back. Desailly, who won his 116th cap on Thursday, was responsible, in part at least, for both Croatian goals. His questionable positioning forced Mikaël Silvestre to bundle over Giovanni Rosso inside the area for the Croatian penalty, and then he totally missed the ball when presented with a straightforward clearance and allowed Dado Prso to fire the Croats ahead.

Desailly has refused to accept any responsibility for his actions, but the absence of a mea culpa will fool no one. Both the manager and, more significantly, the players know that Desailly's time is up. "He was at fault for the second goal," Santini said, "but he was not the only one who under-performed in the second half."

Perhaps so, but Zinedine Zidane will be handed the arm band for the rest of the tournament. And it was the France No 10 who gathered the players for what Thierry Henry called "an emergency team talk" immediately after the Croatians had taken the lead. It said everything about the sudden shift in power within the group that Desailly was but a spectator in the huddle.

"It was the first time I've seen Zizou do something like that," Henry said, "and it worked. I've got to admit that he really showed his strength of character on that one. He was tough and spot on, which was exactly what we needed at that time. Even though we are almost all very experienced, when you have just conceded two goals in five minutes, there is always a danger that you can lose your marbles. But Zizou got us together and told us to stay calm and think about things a few seconds. He said there was still plenty of time on the clock and that we should not panic."

Zidane is not one for Tony Adams-style rants and raves, but he knew that his team-mates were in danger of repeating the errors of the last World Cup, when France lost their cool and went home at the group stages. So the Real Madrid playmaker gathered the ball as if he was the schoolyard chief and then addressed his troops. "Zizou told us that we should just forget the fact that Croatia had scored two goals and move on. We weren't amazing afterwards, but at least we got the equaliser and regained our composure. Zizou had reassured everyone."

Everyone, that is, apart from Desailly, who saw his status within the squad all but crumble. The 35-year-old has had a magnificent career, but this was undoubtedly a tournament too far for the veteran. He and Santini both knew this when they arrived in Portugal. They tried to reach a face-saving compromise, whereby Desailly would sit out the all-important match against England and then return for the supposedly easier game against Croatia. But the plan backfired, and Santini has now been left with no option but to drop his captain.

The remaining positive for Desailly is that he has been told he will still be the player who collects the trophy, should France retain their title on 4 July.

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