Age concern over defence but France are formidable

Magical midfield and exciting young strikers may make even pessimist Domenech smile
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The Independent Online

France's 1-0 win over Colombia in their final warm-up match for Euro 2008 last week was described rather condescendingly in the press as "une petite victoire". Come the start of Group C tomorrow, when they meet Romania in Zurich, any size will do. Grande or petite, they all count the same, and three points in the locker before Holland and Italy play later in the evening would be invaluable.

There was dismay in France when the draw was made last December, throwing together four teams ranked in Uefa's top 10. Their coach, Raymond Dom-enech, rarely the happiest of bunnies, condemned the "madness" of the seedings, complained about playing in Switzerland instead of Austria and admitted: "Nothing I wanted has worked out." No manager, of course, can persist with such pessimism, which defeating Italy 3-1 in the qualifying group – partial revenge for the World Cup final defeat on penalties – did something to assuage. By yesterday he was saying: "We all want to achieve something special."

Signs from the three warm-up games, which also included a 2-0 win over Ecuador and a goalless draw with Paraguay, have been mixed, though one thing was clear: in a group likelyto yield few goals, France's hugely experienced defence should be a match for any – even Italy's, now that the imperious Fabio Cannavaro is out.

Grégory Coupet, from Lyon, is in goal behind a back line boasting 293 international appearances by Willy Sagnol (Bayern Munich), William Gallas (Ars-enal), Lilian Thuram and Eric Abidal (both Barcelona). It is a formidable body of experience, in which Abidal, 28, who keeps out Manchester United's Patrice Evra, is the youngster, protectedin front by Claude Makelele, who has another 65 caps to throw into the mix, though also another pair of 35-year-old legs.

If there is one concern it must be that a really speedy striker could see off the triangle of thirtysomethings in the middle of that defence. Another worry has been the fitness of Patrick Vieira (32 this month, 105 caps), who will be missing tomorrow, though there is increasing confidence his thigh injury will have healed for Friday's game against Holland. In any case, the captain's season with Internazionale has hardly been his best, and Jer-emy Toulalan of Lyon is regardedas an accomplished replacement on the right of midfield. Further forward there is another genuine youngster in the 20-year-old Karim Benzema, who is nowthe favourite ahead of Nicolas Anelka to partner Thierry Henry.

Anelka has not fully demonstrated that he is over the lack of confidence that afflicted him in the latter weeks of the season with Chelsea, though he insists: "I wasn't disappointed not to play against Paraguay and Colombia. I needed to work, to rediscover my rhythm, and I have. Little by little it's coming back. Karim is a very good player, he's going to be the best, but I'm serene about it. It's the coach who decides. We'll see Monday."

The Colombia game, in which the defence kept a third successive clean sheet, was also notablefor Henry becoming the latest member of the squad, after Thuram and Vieira, to reach 100 caps. If all three have reluctantly passed beyond their very best days, there is excitement about a number of the younger players coming through. Toulalan and Benzema are the most likely to start, and Anelka could even find himself behind another in the pecking order of strikers, the little-known Bafetimbi Gomis, 22, who muscled his way into the squad at the last minute by scoring twice on his debut against Ecuador.

Djibril Cissé, once the great hope of French football and a£14 million signing by Gerard Houllier for Liverpool, and David Trezeguet, scorer of the winning golden goal in the 2000 final, are not required.

Unlike Cissé, Franck Ribéry, signed by Bayern Munich from Marseille a year ago, has progressed every bit as well as expected from the time he des-troyed the England Under-21s' European ambitions. As strong as he is clever, Ribéry counts as one of the younger brigade only in comparison to the veterans elsewhere; he even takes the penalties now. If Domenech sticks with the midfield diamond employed recently, Ribéry will flit behind Henry and Benzema in an exciting attacking arrowhead. Makelele will sit as ever at the back of the midfield quartet, and the wide players would be Toulalan, at least until Vieira is fit, and Chelsea's Florent Malouda, whose reputation is higheramong French followers – perhaps recalling great days with Lyon – than Chelsea's.

So strong is the midfield that Mathieu Flamini would be on holiday now but for the doubts over Vieira; meanwhile, Marseille's Samir Nasri, coveted by Arsenal as Flamini's replacement, and Lassana Diarra, also allowed to leave the Emirates, can only expect to be substitutes.

Playing to potential, France look formidable. Having won six of their previous 10 meetings with Romania, they know that another one, however petite, will have even Domenech smiling.

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