French fight to avoid a frightening encore

Isolated Henry will be given striking support as Koreans go in pursuit of a famous scalp
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The Independent Football

One of the consolations of football, like life, is that however bad a team's predicament, there is invariably someone even worse off. Anyone moping over England's efforts so far at this World Cup could jump aboard a Eurostar and test the mood on the either side of the Channel ahead of today's second group match, against South Korea.

Cheaper and quicker would be to go online at www.lequipe.fr and check the website of Europe's best sports newspaper for reaction to France's goalless draw against Switzerland last Tuesday. By Thursday, the paper itself was devoting six pages to analysing what had gone wrong. But a pervading sense of bewilderment at how far the champions of eight years ago have fallen means there were everywhere more questions than answers: "Is Vieira indispensable?" "Is Henry guilty?" "Is Thuram playing too deep?"

Television pictures of Zinedine Zidane haranguing Thuram had been transmitted round the world. At the final whistle in Stuttgart's Gottlieb-Daimler stadium the noisy Swiss celebrations at holding their more eminent neighbours could not drown out booing from the outnumbered French support. There is disenchantment at every level.

Raymond Domenech, uncon-vinced by any of Henry's potential partners, had opted for a 4-2-3-1 formation, with Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira as a pair of holding midfielders, Sylvain Wiltord down the right flank and Zidane and the young Franck Ribéry allowed to float between the centre and left. With Wiltord utterly ineffective and Ribéry disappointing, there were few opportunities to improve on the wretched record of not having scored a goal at the World Cup since the delirium of victory in the Stade de France eight years ago.

Domenech, although annoyed at having his line-up revealed in advance of the first game when L'Equipe employed spying techniques at a closed training session, has spent the intervening period attempting to play down all talk of rifts, scoring crises and tactical dilemmas. "I think it's good that the players talk about what's happened and express themselves when they have something to say," he said. "It does away with a few uncer-tainties. Systems need to be tested, and for two years we've done that, with almost all these players except Franck. But it's not the system that's crucial, it's the players."

He will have to change one or the other in Leipzig this evening against the lively Koreans, who showed in coming from behind to beat Togo that they have not lost all the zip of four years ago. Wiltord's place is at greatest risk, with Lyon's Florent Malouda ready to return after an operation. He plays on the left, so Ribéry could either be given a second chance by switching flanks, or left out to allow Manchester United's Louis Saha or David Trezeguet to support Henry in attack.

"It's more than attacking problems, I'm worried about, it's points," Domenech admits. "The Korea match is turning into a very important one, where we have to score. There's a lot at stake but that's what big teams and players are about, when they rise to the situation." That is what is required of Henry, Vieira and company today, just as it was when they failed so lamentably four years ago, after losing the opening game 1-0 to Senegal.

"That failure against Senegal was still on our minds," said the right-back Willy Sagnol. "Our situation now is a lot better than in 2002. We haven't lost and we know we have a strong defence. That's vital if you want to win the World Cup. We know we must play faster and take more risks but I'm sure we will be more and more competitive."

In 2002, a single point meant an embarrassingly early return home as the first holders since Brazil in 1966 not to come through the group stage. The star player, Zidane, was patently unfit and the team were suffering from the demands of a long domestic season - all of which may sound familiar to English supporters. The difference is that France do not have two wins and six points.

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