France's foreign legion feeling the pressure for 'derby' with England

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Say it quietly, but there are indications that maybe, just maybe, the French are beginning to worry about tomorrow's game against England. When the draw was made for Group B back in December, Jacques Santini's men played down the importance of the opening tie. Then came the recent praise for David Beckham and his team-mates. Now there is little but a mixture of aggression and fear.

Say it quietly, but there are indications that maybe, just maybe, the French are beginning to worry about tomorrow's game against England. When the draw was made for Group B back in December, Jacques Santini's men played down the importance of the opening tie. Then came the recent praise for David Beckham and his team-mates. Now there is little but a mixture of aggression and fear.

True, some of the more naturally laid-back players, such as Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane, are showing no signs of nerves ahead of the game in Lisbon, but others have swapped the charm of the last six months for a more confrontational approach. Patrick Vieira has labelled the meeting with England as "war", while Bixente Lizarazu believes "this will be as tough as a game of rugby".

So why the late change in pre-match tactics? Lilian Thuram thinks he has the answer. "I think that for a lot of our players there is a huge amount of pride at stake on Sunday night," he says. "If you play your football in England, you will be very keen to do well against the country where you earn your living. Facing the English is a motivation for the French guys from the Premier League, but it is a burden, too." Fabien Barthez, Marcel Desailly, William Gallas, Mikaël Silvestre, Claude Makelele, Patrick Vieira, Olivier Dacourt, Robert Pires, Louis Saha, Thierry Henry, Steve Marlet and Sylvain Wiltord: there are no fewer than 12 members of the French squad who play, or have played, in England.

Thuram, who will win his 100th cap tomorrow, probably at centre-back alongside Silvestre rather than the captain, Marcel Desailly, who looks likely to be left out, recalls a similar situation before the final at Euro 2000. "In the lead-up to that match against Italy," the Juventus player says, "I remember that those of us who played in Serie A were quite nervous. You really feel you have no option but to win. It's like a derby. It's a matter of honour."

Gallas concurs. "We know that there is a lot riding on the England match," says the Chelsea centre-back, "and not just in terms of the European Championship. Whoever loses on Sunday will be given a serious ribbing when the new League season begins in August. That's why the win is so important. For 90 minutes, all our friendships will be put on hold."

One wonders what this all-conquering French generation can possibly fear from an England team which is still developing. "Are you kidding?" Gallas yelps. "There is plenty to be worried about. For a start, England can break very, very quickly. It is typical of Sven Goran Eriksson's team to go from defence to attack in just a few quick passes. Before you know it, they can be in a goal-scoring position. With passers of the quality of David Beckham and Steven Gerrard in their ranks, we will have to be extremely careful."

While there is clearly some tension in the ranks, there is no suggestion that the English-based Frenchmen are spending sleepless nights working out how to contain Wayne Rooney or get the better of Jamie Carragher. Rather, they have simply succumbed to the constant hype surrounding the match. "It's true that there have been an unbelievable number of journalists around our camp," remarks Silvestre. "I would say that half of those are English. The volume has been cranked up and perhaps we have got caught up in that a bit."

Not so the French press. England's meeting with their star foreigners may be dominating the back - and sometimes the front - pages on these shores, but the English press's Gallic counterparts have been far more reserved. "In France, this is viewed as an important match," Robert Pires says, "but not some sort of battle. For us, the only thing that matters is making a good start to the tournament." And herein lies France's dilemma. While England, as underdogs, could be forgiven for losing, Les Bleus, as Euro 2004 favourites, would not.

"No team, however talented, wants to lose their opening match," admits Santini, who will be swapping the blue of France for the white of Tottenham Hotspur after the Championship. "It is not necessarily catastrophic, but it can create some unnecessary extra pressure." France's position is all the more tricky because they come to Portugal on the back of a disastrous campaign at the 2002 World Cup. Then, Roger Lemerre's side surrendered their crown at the group stages with just one point and not a single goal to their name.

The manager is desperate to avoid a repeat. "I was not involved with the French group in the Far East," says Santini, "but you could see that the players were either exhausted or, worse, injured. We have made huge efforts to avoid falling into the same traps as last time. To be honest, we had lost that World Cup before a ball was even kicked." The French Federation have taken every precaution imaginable. The preparation is better and the key players are fitter.

"Tiredness is the real killer," Santini warns, "which is why we have avoided long flights to play non-competitive matches and have rested as many of the key men as possible [unlike two years ago, Zidane and Henry have played in only one of the warm-up games]. You can sense that the players have a spring in their step at the moment. We are at full strength and we are ready."

Ready for an intriguing match-up between the best players in English football and the England national team. Ready for the biggest test of Santini's managerial career. And ready, above all, for a game that neither side dare lose.

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