France were given a taste of their own medicine last night, as Croatia produced three exceptional minutes of second-half football to earn a hard-fought draw with the reigning champions. England beware.
Jacques Santini, the French manager, caught everyone by surprise by recalling Marcel Desailly to the centre of the defence. It later transpired that the two men had struck a deal before the England game, whereby France's captain would sit out the Group B opener in Lisbon and then be guaranteed a starting berth last night. The break did not seem to have done the Chelsea veteran a lot of good, as he was at fault for Croatia's second goal.
Not that he was made to work particularly hard. As expected, Croatia made three changes from the team that drew 0-0 with Switzerland on Sunday and, as expected, Otto Baric's men sat extremely deep from the first whistle. Following the battle of wills with a defensive-minded England, this match, it immediately became clear, would be another test of France's creative abilities, not to mention their patience.
Not surprisingly, chances in the opening exchanges were few and far between. With eight minutes gone, Zinedine Zidane delivered one of his trademark passes in behind the Croatian defence, but Thierry Henry's instant shot took a deflection before going out for a corner. Thereafter, France's football was neat but lacking in penetration, and one wondered where a goal might come from.
Cue the master. After 20 minutes, Zidane collected the ball on the left wing before cutting inside and forcing the fault. Such was the pace and curl on his ensuing free-kick that any touch, whether it be French or Croat, was likely to lead to a goal. And so it proved, as the Croatian centre-back Igor Tudor, having had his line of vision obscured by Mikaël Silvestre's run, stuck out a foot and inadvertently beat his own goalkeeper.
Tomislav Butina should have collected the ball from the back of his net a second time before the break. Indeed, Silvestre's fellow defender, William Gallas, will still be wondering how he failed to double France's advantage three minutes from half-time. Henry struck a low corner to the near post, which Zidane helped into the box with the cheekiest of flicks. Gallas rose highest but somehow headed wide from no more than four yards.
It proved to be a costly miss as, just three minutes after the restart, Giovanni Rosso was bundled over inside the box by Silvestre. It was the second penalty the Manchester United defender had conceded in the tournament, having brought down Wayne Rooney at Estadio da Luz four days earlier. The France goalkeeper, Fabien Barthez, saved Silvestre's blushes and David Beckham's penalty on that occasion, but he could do nothing to keep out Milan Rapaic's well taken spot-kick this time.
France suddenly did an England and, for the next three minutes, were in complete disarray. Desailly took his eye off the ball and totally fluffed the easiest of clearances inside the area, thus allowing Dado Prso to gather the ball and strike home from 12 yards.
The time had come for the French to show their Champions' mettle and they did not disappoint. Like the prized fighters that they are, Les Bleus regained their composure and found a way back into the game. Profiting from a fortunate rebound off Butina's 64th minute clearance, David Trezeguet unexpectedly found himself free on goal and duly applied the simplest of finishes.
The goal was just the tonic the Juventus striker needed, following his poor showing against England and his quiet first half last night. However, there was no such change in fortunes for Thierry Henry, who continues to struggle.
France now had 25 minutes left to find the goal that would guarantee them a place in the last eight and went in frantic search of the winner.
Santini tried to freshen things up by introducing Robert Pires and the Arsenal man might have won the game two minutes from time, but his shot fizzed across the face of goal.
Then, on the stroke of fulltime, the Croatian substitute, Ivica Mornar, fired high and wide when he had only Barthez to beat.
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