France's fate depends on inspiration of Zidane

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The Independent Football

Yet by next Wednesday, an even worse fate could have befallen a team that still boasts world-class performers like Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Patrick Vieira. France are trailing in fourth place in Group Four of the European qualifying section and if their two games in the next five days do not produce a maximum return, Raymond Domenech's team could be facing elimination. Even second place in the group and a play-off could be beyond them.

While the Faroe Islands are unlikely to provide unduly testing opposition here this evening - despite the fact that the French had Vieira sent off and needed a late goal to give them a 2-0 win in the reverse fixture 12 months ago - next Wednesday's fixture against the Republic of Ireland in Dublin could be pivotal.

Group Four is the most tightly contested of all the European qualifying sections, with just three points separating the top four teams: Ireland, Switzerland, Israel and France. They all have their fate in their own hands, with key fixtures today (Switzerland at home to Israel), next Wednesday (France away to Ireland) and next month, when the Swiss entertain the French and travel to Dublin.

When the regular troops are struggling, send for Dad's Army. Domenech, who inherited a dispirited team from Jacques Santini last summer, initially had no option other than to rebuild after key members of the squad that had ruled the world at the turn of the century announced their international retirement, but the return to national colours this summer of three veterans has presented the coach with almost an embarras de richesses. Zidane, for so long the talisman of French football, led the way and has been followed back into the fold by Lilian Thuram, a fellow veteran of the 1998 team, and Claude Makelele, a key figure in Chelsea's Premiership triumph last season.

All three players figured in last month's comprehensive 3-0 victory over Ivory Coast in a friendly in Montpellier, a performance which offered France renewed hope. "It was an electric night," Gregory Coupet, the goalkeeper, said. "It's the 'Zizou effect'. Playing with Zidane made us more composed, more in control as a team. You give him the ball and he takes control. It's a pretty straightforward tactic for us."

Domenech spoke yesterday of his delight at the movement and teamwork his team had shown in Montpellier and said they would raise the tempo again tonight. With the return of three thirty-somethings to his squad, might the coach consider resting players with next Wednesday's game in mind? "It's possible," Domenech said cagily, refusing to make public his starting line-up.

Zidane, who agreed that the return of Roy Keane would strengthen Ireland next week, said France were looking forward to the challenge of the next four games.

"Because the match against the Ivory Coast was my first game back and because it was a friendly people wanted to talk more about me," he said. "Now we have to get down to business. We've worked well this week and we have to treat tomorrow's game like any other qualifying match. We must win and win well."

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