France lament the absence of lost leader Zidane

France's Euro 2008 squad are missing Zinedine Zidane, the midfielder Franck Ribéry and the goalkeeper Grégory Coupet said yesterday. "He would take the ball and go and score three goals," Ribéry said as the team prepared for tomorrow's vital Group C game against Italy. "His presence would do everybody a lot of good," added the midfielder, a fan long before replacing him as France's playmaker.

Zidane retired after his headbutt on Marco Materazzi during the 2006 World Cup final defeat by Italy, and for the first time in more than a decade Les Bleus are playing at the finals of a major tournament without the inspiration behind their 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000 victories.

Only after Zidane was persuaded to come out of retirement did France qualify for the 2006 World Cup. and Coupet said his absence was one of the reasons why France, beaten 4-1 by the Netherlands on Friday after drawing 0-0 with Romania on Monday, were toiling at these finals."We lost a great captain," he said. "It's not easy to replace the best player in the world. We're trying to rebuild a group without him. That's part of our problem."

To reach the quarter-finals, France need to beat Italy and hope Romania do not overcome the Dutch in Berne. "We all miss Zizou," Ribéry said. "In difficult situations like the one we're in now you can't help thinking about what a player like him could bring."

For Euro 2008 France were hoping to find the right mixture between ageing stalwarts and exciting newcomers. It has not worked out, partly because several of their most seasoned players are injured or below par. The captain Patrick Vieira, struggling with a thigh injury, has been kept in the squad but missed the first two matches. Defenders Lilian Thuram and Willy Sagnol looked their age against a Netherlands side that had too much pace.

France's two major problems have been that they were let down by their defence, which they believed was their strongest point, and looked clumsy in front of goal. They created chances against the Dutch but converted only one.

Midfield inspiration was also missing, and the young playmaker Samir Nasri has not been given a chance to prove his worth, having been limited to a substitute appearance against Romania. Ribéry said France must show no fear against Italy, however. "We're not dead yet," he said.