Zidane lifts French morale for Irish showdown

France 3 Faroe Islands 0
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The Independent Football

"We're in the process of developing a team," the France coach said. "Last year it was exactly the same. After each match there were small improvements in our game. Nothing's changed this season. After each game there's a positive, an extra intensity about our play, longer spells when we play well. We're getting to know each other. It's an evolutionary process."

Domenech was not kidding anybody. The return from international retirement of Zinedine Zidane, along with Claude Makelele and Lilian Thuram, has transformed a team which had been playing with little flair or confidence.

The Stade Félix Bollaert was burning with new hope after Saturday night's emphatic 3-0 victory over the Faroe Islands had put France level at the top of their World Cup qualifying group with Switzerland and the Republic of Ireland, who play France in Dublin on Wednesday. Israel are one point behind after their excellent draw in Switzerland.

It was left to Patrick Vieira to put a more realistic assessment on the impact of the three returnees. "Before they came back there were some games when we played well, but others when something was missing," he said yesterday. "Our football has flowed better since they returned. The level of our game has gone up and we're creating more chances."

He added: "When you play with Zidane, Makelele and Thuram in your side you've got to be stronger. With Zidane in particular you know that the confidence of the rest of the team will improve."

Perhaps Domenech was downplaying Zidane's impact because there is a doubt over his fitness for Wednesday's crunch tie. He was substituted early in the second half, the victim of several hefty challenges, although he appeared to show no ill effects at yesterday's light training session.

Djibril Cissé - scorer of two goals and the architect of the third when Suni Olsen deflected his fierce cross past his own goalkeeper - and Thuram, replaced after 76 minutes, are also injury worries with a bruised thigh and sore ankle respectively, but it is the captain's hip which is of most concern.

It would be hard to overstate the impact of Zidane's return, which was witnessed by Brian Kerr, the Ireland manager. He was at the centre of France's best work, holding off challenges, weaving past defenders and unleashing the pace of Cissé and Thierry Henry with his passes. As Willy Sagnol, who had an excellent match on the overlap at right-back, observed, France played "really badly" once their talisman departed.

There is a presence about Zidane which lifts those around him. Although Henry had a moderate game and was clearly unhappy about being substituted, Cissé was unrecognisable from the forward who has found Premiership goals hard to come by.

Given the way the Liverpool striker headed home Florent Malouda's cross and smashed Sylvain Wiltord's pass into the roof of the net in what he acknowledged was his best game for France, Domenech might even consider whether Henry is the best choice if he plays with only one out-and-out forward in Dublin.

While the Irish have injury concerns over both Damien Duff - who has missed training with a sore knee - and Andy O'Brien, Domenech knows the size of his team's task and said he made his substitutions with Wednesday in mind. He is expecting a physical game in a passionate atmosphere, though he emphasises that the Irish also have skill in abundance. "With all due respect to the Faroes, you can't compare them with Ireland," Domenech said. "The Ireland game is the key match for us."

Henrik Larsen, the former Danish international who coaches the Faroes, makes France the favourites. "They're playing like they did four or five years ago," he said. "You could see the players were enjoying the game. Zidane has made a big difference."

FRANCE (4-3-1-2): Coupet (Lyon); Sagnol (Bayern Munich), Thuram (Juventus), Boumsong (Newcastle), Gallas (Chelsea); Vieira (Juventus), Makelele (Chelsea), Malouda (Lyon); Zidane (Real Madrid); Cisse (Liverpool), Henry (Arsenal). Substitues: Squillaci (Monaco) for Thuram, 76; Dhorasoo (Lyon) for Zidane, 58; Wiltord (Lyon) for Henry, 67.

FAROE ISLANDS (4-5-1): Mikkelsen (B36 Torshavn); Horg (VB Vagur), Johannesen (TB Tvoroyri), J-R Jacobsen (Frem), Olsen (Aalborg); Borg (HB Torshavn), Hojsted (B36 Torshavn), Flotum (Fremad Amager), Benjaminsen (B36 Torshavn), Jorgensen (Coventry); Jonsson (Start). Substitutes: C-H Jacobsen (NSI Runavik) for Horg, 56; Lakjuni (KI Klaksvik) for Jorgensen, 76; R Jacobsen (Kalur Reykjavik) for Jonsson, 67.

Referee: M Jara (Czech Republic).