Vieira's absence leaves a hole even Zidane finds impossible to fill

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The Independent Online

The true worth of a great player to a team is sometimes more evident when he is off the pitch than on it. So it was here last night in the Jose Alvalade Stadium when France took the field against Greece without their regular number four.

The true worth of a great player to a team is sometimes more evident when he is off the pitch than on it. So it was here last night in the Jose Alvalade Stadium when France took the field against Greece without their regular number four.

Barely breaking sweat, Patrick Vieira had moved little beyond the centre circle during his country's two previous games against Croatia and Switzerland. Nor had he made any strenuous efforts to accelerate past the halfway line in support of his team's forwards. Was this tall, deceptively languid-looking player really so invaluable for Les Bleus, for whom the main man has always seemed to be Zinedine Zidane?

On this latest resounding evidence, the answer is a thunderous yes. Without Vieira, who was out injured with a calf strain, France failed to bring any distinct measures of conviction or cohesion to their play until it was too late. They gave by far their poorest performance yet in Euro 2004. The midfield, even Zidane, looked lost without the Arsenal man whose apparent nonchalance invariably comes accompanied by tackles full of zip. With his attributes, Vieira added that extra je ne sais quoi to Jacques Santini's prior line-ups.

No side, no national selection, ever like to be considered a one-man team. France faced the accusations when Zidane struggled painfully in the 2002 World Cup with his thigh heavily strapped. Without Zizou at anything like his best, the holders went out of the competition without a goal to their name. They had no one, not even Vieira, to supply the inspiration or the sporadic moments of virtuosity provided by a fully fit Zidane.

Maybe France need them both in their side if they are to excel. Without Vieira last night and against a team as adept at getting men behind the ball and crowding the midfield as Greece, France were always bereft of ideas. For it is no coincidence that the Greeks have now figured in two of Euro 2004's most tedious encounters. This quarter-final was for the most part even duller than their desperately prosaic Group A match against Spain in Porto last week.

But was that really such a surprise when they have in Otto Rehhagel a German coach whose compatriots, functional and unexciting, have already suffered an early exit. Twice a Bundesliga winner, Rehhagel coached club sides a good deal more stimulating to watch at both Werder Bremen and Kaiserslautern.

But now he is cutting his cloth according to his adopted country's limitations. The consequence is a side that seldom rises to any great heights and is in no way pleasing on the eye. Unlike Denmark in 1992, Greece may yet discover the whole world does not love an underdog. Alas, but for Vieira's injury, they may have been halted here last night.

On the day when the Olympic flame passed through Paris in a neat act of symmetry, France found they could just not manage without the man who was an unbeaten Premiership champion.

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