Old guard prepare for French day of reckoning

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The Independent Online

A day of birthdays and milestones must end in anguish for one of the three countries hoping to advance from Group G to the knock-out phase. France, Switzerland and South Korea can each win the section, but come tomorrow, one of their number will be packing for home.

France, who will be captained by Patrick Vieira on the day he turns 30, will go through if they win by a two-goal margin here against the already-eliminated Togo, their former colony and a side drawn largely from the French lower divisions. Should they fail - and Les Bleus last won a group fixture en route to the trophy in 1998 - then not only will the international career of the suspended Zinedine Zidane end on his 34th birthday, but Raymond Domenech would struggle to survive as coach.

The former Lyon manager has been under pressure from the French media to abandon the formation which sees Thierry Henry operate as a lone attacker. It seems the fourth estate are to have their way, with David Trezeguet or, possibly, Louis Saha likely to join the Arsenal striker in a switch from the favoured 4-2-3-1 to an orthodox 4-4-2, which France last used after defeating Costa Rica 3-2 last November.

"It's not the system but the players that make the difference," Domenech informed his critics. Maybe so, but Zidane has seldom looked sufficiently sharp to support Henry from midfield, so his absence against Togo may actually be a blessing in disguise. Since there is no obvious replacement for the Real Madrid playmaker in the squad, it seems certain to be a radically different France that strives to keep their campaign alive. One of the old guard, Lilian Thuram, will overtake Marcel Desailly's national record of 116 caps. His unit, the back four, has been the only one in the France side to function effectively, yet Henry argued it is too soon to write them off. "Big teams like Germany and Italy have had slow starts and great runs before," he said. "We must believe in ourselves."

Similar rallying calls came from the Swiss and Korean camps as they prepared for the showdown in Hanover. A draw would be enough to put Switzerland in the last 16 on goal difference, and history does not augur well for South Korea. Of 17 meetings with European sides in the World Cup finals, their only three wins all came on home soil in 2002.

Kobi Kuhn, who will be overseeing his 50th match as Switzerland coach, has long claimed that his priority was to peak in time for Euro 2008, which the Swiss will co-host with Austria. "I thought this World Cup would be too early for a young team, but it looks as if we're ahead of schedule," he said. "All I want is three points and a place in the next round."

Dick Advocaat, who has continued the Dutch influence on South Korea - without, as yet, rivalling Guus Hiddink's popularity or achievements - was wary of the pedigree of Kuhn's team.

"The difference between us is that 10 of their 11 play in strong European leagues, which means they are more experienced than us," Advocaat said. "Korea have never finished No 1 in a group, so we can make history. The Swiss have high-quality defenders, but we will see how they do if we put them under pressure."

Lee Woon Jae, Advocaat's goalkeeper, will bring up a century of caps tonight. But the 33-year old from Suwon Bluewings doubtless spoke for all those reaching landmarks when he said: "Don't bother with a cake. It will mean nothing if we don't win."

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