Ageing legs need one final effort to reach summit

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The Independent Online

The exquisite football of France, and the beautiful legend they hope to create in the World Cup final in Berlin, now has just four days to remake itself.

To imagine that it cannot be done is to slight the deeds of the man at the heart of the idea that there can indeed be a fantasy climax to a tournament of endless intrigue - and shifting power - but as his old Real Madrid team-mate Luis Figo kissed his cheek and wished him well , there was no question that Zinedine Zidane has to find a new injection of life and poise. Without it, he is unlikely to walk away from the game as a champion of the world for a second time.

His superb performances against Spain and Brazil might have come from another age, rather than this last week, as Portugal, brilliantly served by the now harshly vilified Cristiano Ronaldo, exposed the kind of weaknesses in France which Marcello Lippi and his Italians doubtless noted with the eyes of trained assassins.

Yes, France can rally from the slender base of the margin of a penalty - the one moment of true threat on Ricardo's goal - but there has to be a major restatement of authority from such key players as Zidane, Patrick Vieira and Thierry Henry. Vieira was invisible most of the time and Henry suffered from both poor service and a serious shortfall of personal inspiration, but then he did seize on one moment of Portuguese weakness. It was just enough.

Ricardo Carvalho reached out in the tackle under the pressure inflicted by Henry's pace, made contact not with the ball but the Frenchman's leg and so he paid a now inevitable price. Whatever else Henry has achieved in this World Cup - and the goal with which he ambushed Brazil would surely live strongly in the memory of most great players - there is no doubt that his grotesquely theatrical dive when brushed against by Spain's Carles Puyol will be an unshakeable reminder of the risks of tackling him anywhere near goal.

Now Carvalho knows they are roughly on a par with a play session with nitroglycerine. As Zidane waited to complete the formality of the penalty-kick that would carry him another step towards an extraordinary climax to his superb career, Portugal's coach Luis Felipe Scolari naturally ranted on the touchline. However, the gods, those in the sporting heavens and the one waiting at the penalty spot, were unforgiving. Carvalho had made a fatal lunge.

The effect of it was hardest on the embattled Ronaldo. It is a distortion of reality, but he has become a figure of widespread hatred for his passing involvement in the Wayne Rooney red card eruption which so disfigured England's failing attempt to stay in the tournament last weekend. The boos, and presumably not all of them were from the remnants of the English support who held tickets for a game which, for all the tension, and nearly as much play-acting as you might get in a whole season at Stratford-upon-Avon, had moments of superb intensity, were relentless - but then so was Ronaldo.

One of his gravest disappointments came as the French were put under heavy pressure to sustain the dream of Zidane's journey to Berlin. His thunderous free-kick could only be pawed by Fabien Barthez into the path of Figo, who headed over the bar.

That was part of a pattern of Portuguese aggression which increasingly stretched the French cover. They were brilliant against the much fancied Spain in the second round, and Zidane repossessed so much of his old grandeur in the quarter-final against Brazil. Now, though, the smooth passage to the final was suddenly a matter of scuffling survival after Henry's moment of opportunism.

It was a rearguard operation endlessly threatened by the player who, it is now being said, would be unwise to return to Old Trafford. This is a disordered reaction to the Rooney incident, especially when you consider Manchester United's need for a player of Ronaldo's gifts. At times they were blindingly obvious as he ran with control and fine judgement and never allowed the swirling statement of disapproval coming down from the terraces of the silver stadium to disturb his belief that the French journey to Berlin was not inevitable.

For France the objective had soon enough become a simple case of survival. Deco and Maniche and Figo had all supplied thrusting support to the threat of their young compatriot Ronaldo, and at the end the emotion of Les Bleus was one of the most explicit relief.

They go to Berlin but there will be some tremors of doubt that they can unveil any more than flashes of the majesty that so engulfed first Spain, then Brazil.

Destiny may be calling, but meanwhile the Italians will no doubt believe they have the power to intervene. It brought a chill to the latest French glory.

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