France want the will to win

Click to follow
France's coach, Aime Jacquet, used the word "explosive" to characterise the kind of encounter he expects in today's semi-final against the Czech Republic. While not the most sensitive term for a game in Manchester, Old Trafford can only hope he is right after the damp squib of the quarter- finals.

Jacquet must be wary of promoting too combustible a contest. The Czechs have the worst disciplinary record at Euro 96, which has cost their coach, Dusan Uhrin, a quartet of suspended players. The same number of Frenchmen - Laurent Blanc, Youri Djorkaeff, Marcel Desailly and Didier Deschamps - play knowing that a caution would put them out of Sunday's final.

The Czechs' latest flurry of cards, tarnishing the 1-0 win over Portugal, should have tilted the balance towards France. Likewise the news that the underdogs' most cultured player, Patrik Berger, has only a 50-50 chance of playing after missing two days' training with through illness.

Jacquet, seeking to discourage the notion that a final place is little more than a formality, said yesterday: "I know the Czech team well. They hang back and send you to sleep, breaking up the rhythm of the match. Then they explode forward. The new players in the side will make them even more dangerous than usual. They'll be fresher, with something to prove."

The occasion, Jacquet added, promised to be "very explosive, full of emotion". Proving that he and Eric Cantona agree on one thing, he described Manchester United's home as a "magnificent stadium" where good football was "passionately appreciated".

At this stage, unfortunately, artistic merit does not rank high among the priorities of tired players or coaches. France, while yet to give full expression to the talents which convinced Jacquet he needed neither Cantona nor David Ginola, have their best side since Michel Platini lifted the trophy in 1984. Yet their edge in quality may be worthless unless they impose their will on the game.

Jacquet selects from a full squad apart from Christian Karembeu (suspended) and Christophe Dugarry (injured). The former's absence could let in Sabri Lamouchi in midfield. Alternatively, Desailly might switch from the back into central midfield, with Deschamps moving right and Alain Roche coming into defence. Such a rejig would mean disturbing the unit on which France's progress has been founded.

Compared with the Czechs, France have an embarrassment of riches. For the most important game in the history of the fledgling nation, Uhrin found himself counting players as much as much as coaching them.

"My biggest wish is to beat France, but without five players it will be very difficult," he said. "If Berger is unfit, we will have to consider a change of tactics. We'll probably play two strikers instead of one."

All of which may well be a smokescreen. The Czechs' record - three defeats in 22 games - almost matches that of Jacquet's France, who are unbeaten in 27. With hindsight, it was amazing that any team taking eight points from the Netherlands and Norway in qualifying could have been considered makeweights.

In Prague, the new parliament has voted to break up in time for kick- off. With their alleged exploits in the field of beer and bonking, the Czechs have captured floating voters much as Denmark did four summers ago. But France are equipped to ensure that their story does not have the same, dizzying denouement.

CZECH REPUBLIC (Probable) (1-2-5-2): Kouba (Sparta Prague); Kadlec (Kaiserslautern); Hornak (Sparta), Kubik (Petra Drnovice); Poborsky (Slavia Prague), Frydek (Sparta), Berger (Borussia Dortmund), Nemec (Schalke 04), Nedved (Sparta); Drulak (Petra Drnovice), Kerbr (Sigma Olomouc).

FRANCE (Probable) (4-3-2-1): Lama (Paris St-Germain); Thuram (Parma), Blanc (Barcelona), Desailly (Milan), Lizarazu (Bordeaux); Lamouchi (Auxerre), Deschamps (Juventus), Guerin (Paris St-Germain); Zidane (Bordeaux), Djorkaeff (Internazionale); Loko (Paris St-Germain).

Referee: L Mottram (Scotland).

PETR KOUBA Age: 27. Sparta Prague.

While leaking six goals in three group games was not the best sales pitch to Rangers, Wolves and other interested parties, Kouba was largely blameless and did not put a finger wrong against Portugal. At 6ft, he is on the small side for his position nowadays but compensates with spectacular agility. Son of a former Czechoslovakia keeper and coached by Ivo Viktor, of the Euro 76 winners, he also has sound technique and temperament. Having displaced Ludek Miklosko and Pavel Srnicek, he epitomises an underrated side.

PATRICE LOKO Age: 26. Paris St-Germain.

With the injured Christophe Dugarry out of the tournament, the striking burden for France will fall on a player who has been a prolific scorer in club football in recent years. Patrice Loko, who made his name with Nantes before moving to the French capital last summer, had been alternating with Dugarry in the national team in recent months. While Dugarry is regarded as a better pivot to the attack, Loko is perhaps the better goalscorer, as he showed with his calm finish to score against Bulgaria last week.