Adieu Desailly as Santini bows to pressure

Jacques Santini last night sought to heal the growing divisions within the French camp by announcing that his ageing captain, Marcel Desailly, would not start against England in this evening's crucial opening Group B match.

Jacques Santini last night sought to heal the growing divisions within the French camp by announcing that his ageing captain, Marcel Desailly, would not start against England in this evening's crucial opening Group B match.

"Marcel will be on the bench," Santini confirmed at a press conference in Lisbon yesterday. "Against England, you have to be at the top of your form and, after discussing the situation with Marcel for several hours, we have agreed that he is still far from being in the right physical shape. Marcel probably still needs three more training sessions to reach the level of intensity required during 90 minutes."

Santini's decision to go public with his team selection more than 24 hours before kick-off is highly unusual, and supports the theory that the relentless rumours surrounding Desailly have been draining morale. For several weeks now, the debate about the Chelsea centre-back has raged. The older squad members, such as Bixente Lizarazu and Lilian Thuram, were said to favour the inclusion of the 35-year-old, while the younger generation, including Willy Sagnol and William Gallas, wanted France's most capped player to be left out.

Several squad members, especially those who play their club football in the Premiership, have been confiding in French journalists that they are afraid of losing to England. The entire French party are terrified of repeating the mistakes of the last World Cup in Japan and South Korea, when they lost their opening group match to Senegal and then failed to reach the knockout stages.

The French media, though anxious not to engage in a personal vendetta against Desailly, had also made it clear they would prefer to see the Chelsea man on the bench. Meanwhile, an opinion poll in France showed 73 per cent of supporters did not want Desailly to start.

Santini, who harboured doubts over Desailly's capacity to cope with the pace and strength of the England front-men Michael Owen and Wayne Rooney, yesterday bowed to the majority and picked Manchester United's Mikaël Silvestre to play alongside Thuram in the centre of defence.

Desailly has won 115 caps for France, during which time he has lifted the 1998 World Cup and the 2000 European Championship. In his prime, he was the best central defender of his generation and formed, with Laurent Blanc, the most formidable partnership in France's history. But age and injuries have caught up with the Ghana-born defender and he has struggled this season.

He played second fiddle to the Gallas-John Terry central- defensive duo at Chelsea, and has amassed a paltry 114 minutes on the pitch since the Premiership defeat at Newcastle on 25 April, when he was turned with embarrassing ease by the veteran striker Alan Shearer. The writing was on the wall when, though fit again after knee trouble, he was not called on when France beat the Ukraine 1-0 in their final warm-up match last Sunday.

"My preparation has been far from perfect," Desailly said, trying to put on a brave face. "I've not been able to prove my fitness this week. Being at 85 to 90 per cent is not good enough, especially at my age."

Santini's other reason for not reinstating Desailly is that it would have required wholesale changes across the back four. For example, had Desailly played alongside Thuram, then the 34-year-old left-back Lizarazu would probably have been dropped in favour of Silvestre. If he had been paired with the quicker Gallas in the centre, then Thuram would have had to revert to his least favoured position of right-back or even dropped for Sagnol.

When Thuram, who will win his 100th cap today, was asked on Thursday whether he would prefer to team up with Desailly or Silvestre, he said diplomatically: "The more you play with someone the better you get to know their game. Conversely, if you play little with another centre-back, verbal communication will be much more important. I don't really chat when I'm playing, but if against England there are two of us [he and Silvestre] who don't know each other, then we will have to speak." Thuram had better start talking.

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