Togo or not to go? France last night answered the tantalising question, if not quite their critics, by booking their place in the second phase after winning a World Cup finals match for the first time since the 1998 final.
Patrick Vieira, captain of the side on his 30th birthday, broke Togo's resistance 10 minutes into the second half, while Thierry Henry added a second in the 61st minute. France had avoided elimination at the group stage for the second tournament running, yet there was little in their display against the spirited but limited west Africans to suggest they will be a match for Spain next Tuesday.
Zinedine Zidane, who watched it all from the sidelines, was suspended on his 34th birthday. In his absence, Raymond Domenech had switched to a 4-4-2 system that he effectively abandoned last November. David Trezeguet was recalled to partner Henry, having received the captain's armband but not so much as a kick as a late substitute against South Korea.
One of Domenech's problems had been that there was no obvious replacement for the man to whom French banners wished "Joyeux anniversaire, Zizou". Franck Ribery, who has the energy Zidane lacks but little of the guile, strove to provide a link between midfield and the front, coming infield from the right as France mounted immediate pressure.
Trezeguet quickly set about making up for lost time. Before the first half had reached the midway point the Juventus player could have been celebrating a hat-trick. First he had spun to shoot inches wide; soon he saw a header from a Ribery cross tipped over by Kossi Agassa; and then had a goal disallowed for the most marginal of offside decisions when Henry and Ribery combined to play him in.
However, there was a desperation about the way France were throwing themselves forward. Togo had acquitted themselves creditably in losing against South Korea and Switzerland - despite the resignation (and return) of their German coach, Otto Pfister, and a threatened boycott by players over unpaid bonuses - and they appeared determined to go out in the same style.
Striking on the break, they twice had Gallic hearts in mouths during the opening half. Fabien Barthez held the ensuing shots by Mohamed Kader and Junior Yao Senaya, and with Emmanuel Adebayor charging in, there was no margin for error. A booking for Claude Makelele for cutting down Senaya summed up French frustration as half-time approached.
The performance of Agassa, one of nine members of Pfister's squad who earn a modest living in the lower divisions of the country they were facing, often resembled that of Shaka Hislop for Trinidad & Tobago against Sweden in terms of defiance and agility. The best save was a flying leap to keep out Florent Malouda's 25-yard shot, and the fact that Trezeguet had been offside did not detract from its merit.
Trezeguet appeared fated not to score. Spinning away from his marker to receive Ribery's free-kick near the penalty spot in the opening minutes of the second half, his goalbound shot struck a defender and bobbled tantalisingly wide.
Ribery, criticised by Henry for a sloppy pass during France's stalemate with Switzerland, again began to resemble the fall guy. Having earlier blazed wildly over when well placed, he contrived to repeat the feat after a slick build-up between Henry and Malouda. The Marseilles player, who has announced his desire to decamp to Lyon, put his hands to his face in a passable impersonation of Munch's "The Scream".
To his credit, Ribery regained his composure and promptly created the 55th-minute goal that France must have started to fear would never come. After jinking past Massamasso Tchangai and driving into the Togo penalty area, the diminutive midfielder cut the ball back inside to Vieira, who turned and fired beyond Agassa from 12 yards.
Within six minutes, France had doubled their advantage. A long ball by Willy Sagnol was headed on by Vieira to Henry, who swivelled and dispatched his 35th goal for Les Bleus. The rapture of their followers behind the goal was heavily laced with relief.Reuse content