England thought they had one of their greatest victories last night, and they did for 90 minutes. But that was before Zinedine Zidane, who seemed to be in the middle of a night of crumbling reputation, scored a free-kick and a penalty with the most thunderous of conviction.
David James brought down Thierry Henry with just seconds of added time remaining. Zidane, who two minutes earlier sent an exquisite free-kick wide of James, was utterly deliberate.
England's captain David Beckham, who had missed a penalty 18 minutes earlier, left the field in tears. England may now struggle to recover from the impact and the meaning of this defeat - especially after the superb goal which left them in the lead for most of the match.
The impact of England's goal was stunning for several reasons. First there was the hard beauty of Frank Lampard's run to meet Beckham's free-kick after the England captain had been pushed in the back by the suddenly stretched veteran Bixente Lizarazu. Naturally, the French visibly sagged in the immediate aftermath.
They had been confronted by an act of astonishing impertinence - the first goal scored against them in 12 games and nearly 12 months. Then it was necessary to consider what such English drive and resolution represented in a team which had until that 38th minute been obliged to chase some beautifully etched French patterns. What it showed was tremendous resolution and a refusal to be intimidated by the reigning European champions, even in some of their more refined moments.
Robert Pires looked intent on nothing less than a ruthless demolition of the spirit of his Arsenal club-mate Ashley Cole in the early going. He ran with poise and a taunting self-belief, once slipping the ball between Cole's legs and sailing past him: the ultimate football put-down, the nutmeg. But England were not prepared to be shunted imperiously to one side.
They defended deeply, alarmingly so at times, but when it came to close combat they were comfortably up to the job. This was particularly true of Ledley King, the 23-year-old Tottenham player who played a long phase of last season in midfield. Some felt Eriksson had made too bold a gamble when he decided to give King the huge task of tackling Henry, world football's most thrilling forward. They thought the job should have gone to the much more experienced Jamie Carragher, one of the Premiership's most technically adroit defenders but certainly not one of the quickest. King on this evidence is, and as the finely balanced and increasingly edgy game wore into the second half King was making the sense of crisis over injury to the man he replaced, John Terry, seem somewhat exaggerated. With more than an hour gone, Henry had been only an intermittent presence, and then his show, as in one superbly flowing run down the left, was considerably greater than his product.
Other French reputations were also suffering, not least the greatest one of them all, Zidane's. After his season of torment in Madrid, these championships were supposed to represent a new creative freedom. All the old touches were expected to resurface in the company of the cream of his champion nation's talent. So much for the assumptions of a great player. The reality was the French, and Zidane, were suddenly facing a nightmare repeat of their World Cup experience in the Far East two years ago. They went there to defend their title and had it ripped away, first by Senegal on an opening night of drizzle and trauma in Seoul.
Were England, a team who seemed in tactical disarray less than two weeks ago in a sterile debate over a discredited diamond or the orthodox midfield which battled so effectively with such demi-gods as Zidane and Patrick Vieira, about to provide fresh evidence of the terminal decline of one of the great football empires?
That certainly was the impression when Mikaël Silvestre was panicked into conceding a penalty by the surge of the young hope of England, Wayne Rooney, in the 72nd minute. Beckham, who had gone into the game resisting claims that he owed England a significantly improved level of performance, stepped up to the spot with the underpinning of a much more relevant contribution to the cause. Perhaps only one thing nagged at his confidence: his spectacular miss in Istanbul in the final qualifying game, when he lofted the ball into the stand.
This time the penalty was well struck and on the target, but it provoked a brilliant save from Beckham's former Old Trafford team-mate Fabien Barthez. That triggered a predictable siege by the smarting, increasingly desperate Frenchmen. Fortunately, it also inspired even greater English resistance... right up to the moment Zidane delivered his beautifully flighted winner. Great players tend not to drift all the way into the night.
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