Vieira ready for 'war' with England

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Vive la difference. Just as Patrick Vieira was warning that Sunday's match between France and England would be "war", Zinedine Zidane was articulating a more considered and less warrior-like assessment of where their Group B confrontation might be won and lost.

Vive la difference. Just as Patrick Vieira was warning that Sunday's match between France and England would be "war", Zinedine Zidane was articulating a more considered and less warrior-like assessment of where their Group B confrontation might be won and lost.

Vieira, pressed as to whether he could go in hard on his Arsenal colleague Sol Campbell, tackled the question like he tackles opponents. "Of course," he said. "Everyone will defend their colours. It's going to be war. If Sol has to tackle Titi [Thierry Henry], do you think he's going to shirk or go easy on him? Of course not. It's far too important."

To the Arsenal ball-winner, who turns 28 during the second week of the finals, there is no question of the sides settling for a stalemate as the safest course. "Both teams absolutely want to win - the English for their pride, because they want to show all of us that play in their country that they are still the best. And us, because if we have to go back to England having lost, we're going to suffer."

For Zidane, who will celebrate his 32nd birthday on the same day as Vieira and could conceivably be playing in his last major finals, the primary motivation extends beyond the match in the Estadio da Luz. The Real Madrid playmaker wants desperately to atone for France's wretched defence of the World Cup in 2002, when injury forced him to play a bit part. True catharsis will come only if Les Bleus make a better fist of protecting the European Championship trophy.

In the more immediate term, however, there is the pressing matter of the match against England. Much has been made of the connections between players in the rival squads from Arsenal, Chelsea and Manchester United, but Zidane will also be tangling - directly at times since the starting point of his roving playmaker's role tends to be on the left of midfield - with his Real Madrid colleague David Beckham.

Facing the media in a back room adjoining a basketball court in the municipal sports centre in the northern Portuguese town of Santo Tirso, where France are based, the three-times World Player of the Year and newly voted Most Popular Frenchman of All Time cautioned against writing off Beckham. The England captain endured a torrid end to the season, especially where off-the-pitch matters were concerned, yet Zidane singled him out as an opponent requiring "special attention".

"Playing against Beckham will be fantastic for me," Zidane said. "He is a great player, and from being alongside him all season, I know about the danger he could pose to us. He is a friend, too, and I know how much the game on Sunday will mean to him. But it means a lot to me as well, and make no mistake - I will be out to beat him.

"Knowing his game will help me to combat the things David can do, but he could still do things that might turn this match. We will be paying him special attention."

War or not, Zidane believes that midfield will be the key battleground. "That is where this game will be decided, and Beckham is obviously a key part of that," he said. "Paul Scholes, too, is a very strong player. In fact, they are powerful all across the centre of the pitch. As well as the skill, they have the typical English aggression and fighting spirit."

Zidane is not concerned that the champions must face one of the favourites first, in a game that will have added edge for the French in that they dare not follow a 2002 World Cup of only one point and no goals with a faltering start. "On the contrary, I'm pleased that we're playing England before Croatia and Switzerland. We have had so much time to prepare for this match. If it had been the second game, we would have had only a couple of days to get ready.

"I believe this game will be the hardest we will have. There is no chance of our underestimating England. We know we will all have to play at 100 per cent of our abilities to secure the result we want. A win would be great, but a draw will be fine for France."

As well as being a match that neither side dare lose, the game represents a test of France's credibility under Jacques Santini, who will leave after the tournament to become manager of Tottenham Hotspur. His side sailed through the qualifying competition with Europe's only 100 per cent record, but the standard of the opposition, namely Israel, Cyprus, Slovenia and Malta, means that the current crop can not yet be compared with the triumphant teams of 1998 and 2000.

Zidane, who was incapacitated by a thigh injury in the last World Cup and performed only fitfully in his solitary appearance, took failure in the Far East to heart. "It was terrible for me, but also for the team and for the country," he said. "We all came home with our heads bowed."

This time, insisted Vieira, it would be different. "I think we've reached our peak in every way. We have a new psychology, tactics and technique, and also a new confidence. We feel re-energised. On top of that, we have extraordinary players."

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