France put faith in old guard for final push

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The Independent Football

Thierry Henry remains a doubt and his old Arsenal colleague Patrick Vieira will be missing as France set out against Romania tonight two years down the road from defeat on penalties in the World Cup final and Zinedine Zidane's shameful exit from international football. They are approaching the crossroads that all ageing squads eventually reach.

Henry has not trained since picking up an injury during his 100th appearance, against Colombia last week, when he was whistled by a section of the Paris crowd after being substituted. Like Vieira, Claude Makelele, Lillian Thuram and William Gallas, he is now the wrong side of 30, when battle wounds take that much longer to heal.

Their coach, Raymond Domenech, is waiting until today to decide whether Vieira may be fit later in the tournament or whether Mathieu Flamini's wait as 24th man will be rewarded with a place in the squad. The new playmaker Franck Ribéry, also collected a knock against Colombia and has been cosseted since.

The real youngsters, meanwhile, champ at the bit. The new generation has been dubbed "Benasri"as in Karim Benzema, Lyons' mercurial striker, and another 20-year-old, Samir Nasri, the Marseilles midfielder coveted by Arsène Wenger as Flamini's replacement at Arsenal. The epithet may soon have to be changed to include Bafétimbi Gomis, who burst into international football less than a fortnight ago with two goals as a substitute against Ecuador.

If Henry is fit tonight, Benzema is his likely partner, ahead of Nicolas Anelka, although both Anelka and Florent Malouda tend to perform better for France than for Chelsea.

Vieira's place against Romania will almost certainly go to another bright young thing, Jérémy Toulalan of Lyons, but in defence, the old lags still hold sway.

Gallas and the 36-year-old Thuram form a central defensive partnership with 202 caps between them and Manchester United's European club champion Patrice Evra has so far been unable to displace the more senior Éric Abidal of Barcelona.

Romania are considered the outsiders of four in Group C, although they finished above the Netherlands in qualifying for the tournament, taking four points from them with a 1-0 victory and 0-0 draw.

Last night Domenech said of them: "They will do everything to try to beat us and we need to make sure that if we don't win, we don't lose.

"All three of the opponents are big enough to inspire my players. We have to be aware of their strengths. They are similar to Italy in terms of their skill and discipline."

Romania rely heavily on Cristian Chivu, the versatile captain playing through the pain of a persistent shoulder injury, and Adrian Mutu, scorer of 17 goals in his last 20 qualifying matches. Mutu was shocked by the Fifa ruling last week that he owes Chelsea £9.6m for breaching his contract with them when found guilty of taking cocaine.

"He doesn't seem that affected as far as I know," said the Romanian coach, Victor Piturca. "He certainly doesn't think he owes any money to Chelsea and I agree with him."

France (probable, 4-2-2-2): Coupet (Lyons); Sagnol (Bayern), Gallas (Chelsea), Thuram (Barcelona) Abidal (Barcelona); Makelele (Chelsea), Toulalan (Lyons); Ribéry (Bayern), Malouda (Chelsea); Benzema (Lyons), Henry (Barcelona) or Anelka (Chelsea).

Romania (probable, 4-2-3-1): Lobont (Dinamo Bucharest); Contra (Getafe), Goian (Steaua), Tamas (Auxerre), Radu (Lazio); Chivu (Internazionale), Cocis (Lokomotiv Moscow); Petre (CSKA Sofia), Dica (Steaua), Mutu (Fiorentina); Marica (Stuttgart).

Referee: M Mejuto Gonzalez (Spain).

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