Domenech under threat as France struggle to live up to legends of recent past

The French coach has mended bridges with his senior players and returned to a familiar playing system but is time running out?
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The Independent Online

Cliques of players who bad-mouth the coach and each other.... Brilliant, prima donna players who fail to deliver their stunning club form for their country... A coach unable to forge the one-for-all team spirit which wins tough matches...

Cliques of players who bad-mouth the coach and each other.... Brilliant, prima donna players who fail to deliver their stunning club form for their country... A coach unable to forge the one-for-all team spirit which wins tough matches...

None of this is anything new for France. It has been the rule for most of France's life as an international footballing nation. The victories of Les Bleus in the 1998 World Cup, and the European Championship two years later were the great "French Exceptions". A fraternal team of (then) largely unsung players (Zidane apart) ended France's decades of cantankerous under-achievement.

Can Raymond Domenech, France's new coach (the third in just over two years) rebuild the club spirit created by his mentor, Aimé Jacquet, and harness the young talent still pouring from the French youth académies? If his team fails to beat the Republic of Ireland at the Stade de France tonight and Cyprus in Nicosia on Wednesday, he may never find out. The knives are already out for Domenech, not least among the survivors of 1998 and especially the "Highbury Three", Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira and Robert Pires.

After a 0-0 draw against Israel at home in the first World Cup qualifying match and an inept 2-0 victory in the Faroe Islands in the second, France also badly needs the points. Even a draw with Ireland tonight and a win in Nicosia will leave the Domenech critics, both internal and external, unconvinced.

Since France's miserable European Championship campaign under Jacques Santini, the 1998-2000 team which once bestrode the football world has fallen apart. Zinedine Zidane, Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Bixente Lizarazu and Claude Makelele have taken early retirement from international football.

This is hardly Domenech's fault, but he is blamed for it anyway. A more forceful coach, a higher-profile coach, might, it is said, have persuaded "Zizou" and Thuram to have stayed for a period of transition.

Worse, Domenech has succeeded in alienating some of the great players who remain - Fabien Barthez as well as the Arsenal three. He has imposed what the multi-millionaires from the Premiership and Serie A and even the French championship regard as humiliating new rules: don't use your mobile while you're on the treatment table (out of respect for the masseur); come down for breakfast on time; join self-criticism, encounter groups after each match.

After a dispiriting 1-1 draw with Bosnia in Domenech's first (friendly) match, Barthez was asked what he wanted to say against his own performance in goal. He stood up, said "nothing" and sat down.

Domenech, previously the coach of the Under-21 team, has also broken up the usual pattern of room-sharing at the Clairefontaine national football training centre south of Paris. One great player found himself - lèse-majesté - in a room without a shower.

Even worse, in the eyes of some players, the coach has imposed a defensive 3-5-2 formation - with wing-backs frequently funnelling back to 5-3-2 - which fails to make use of France's greatest remaining talent, Thierry Henry.

Worst of all, he has criticised his players publicly. "When Pires is playing well you have the impression he can do anything," Domenech told the daily sports newspaper, L'Equipe. "When he's playing badly he looks like he can't do anything." Pires responded by stating that he didn't understand the coach's playing system, which was, in any case, rubbish. Domenech went to Highbury last month to have a "man-to-man" talk with Pires, Henry and Vieira. Some bridges appear to have been mended or at least propped up. At Clairefontaine on Thursday, Pires said: "There was a misunderstanding at a certain level and we rectified this." Highbury Power appears to have won, for the time being. Domenech will switch tonight to a four-man defence and a 4-4-2 system, designed to put the ball at Henry's feet, in the kind of spaces that he thrives on in the Premiership. This will also give Pires a more orthodox position on the wing and place the Liverpool striker Djibril Cissé alongside Henry up front.

Vieira is suspended, leaving France with an inexperienced midfield, led by the former Leeds United, now Roma, player, Olivier Dacourt.

To be fair to Domenech, France's problems go back well before he took over.

Henry - only two goals in 10 internationals this year - has not played a convincing match for France for four years. The team's performances in the 2002 World Cup (no goals in three matches) were a disgrace; those in Portugal not much better.

"We had started to think of ourselves as too beautiful, too beautiful," Lilian Thuram said. In other words, the selflessness and work ethic of the Jacquet era had died. The selfish complexes of France teams of old had returned.

Domenech is promoting (too fast, some say) the younger players he has groomed in the espoirs. Alou Diarra of Lens (on loan from Liverpool) is spoken of as the "new Vieira". Rio-Antonio Mavuba, of Bordeaux, who starts in midfield tonight, was born 20 years ago on a refugee boat off Angola. He is now regarded as one of the great hopes of French football.

To emulate his mentor (and great supporter), Jacquet, Domenech must build a new team and a new team spirit from young players such as these.

But will he have time? And would he dare, like Jacquet did with Eric Cantona and David Ginola, to exclude the brilliant but troublesome survivors of the last generation?

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