World Cup: France's fright of fantasy

Phil Shaw in Marseilles waits to be convinced of the power of Jacquet's challenge; Fitful Zidane embodies the frustrations as margin of opening victory only papers over the hosts' frailties
Click to follow
MARSEILLES has given the world many things, from the French National Anthem and bouillabaisse to Eric Cantona and the Count of Monte Cristo. Judging by the reaction to France's 3-0 defeat of South Africa the numbers are burgeoning of those who believe the city will also be remembered as the birth place of a glorious World Cup campaign for the host nation.

However, as the watching Ron Atkinson might have put it, it is les portes de bonne heure: early doors. And to those not watching through Tricolour- tinted spectacles, the French performance was as unconvincing as the margin of victory was emphatic.

There are, it is true, mitigating factors. Foremost among them were the violent gusts of the Mistral, which forced the postponement of the youth international that was to have been the hors d'oeuvre. Given the way in which Aime Jacquet has been dogged by the ill wind of public antipathy, the French coach had every right to wear a vindicated smile afterwards.

Jacquet, whose Christian name has an ironic ring, boasts easily the best record of any manager in France's history. Since he took over from Gerard Houllier, his team have recorded 27 wins and only three defeats in 44 games for an average of 2.15 points per fixture. Nevertheless, the statistics mask shortcomings which - unless France reveal qualities that remained hidden in Marseilles - are likely to lead to an anti-climactic exit. Principal among them remains the lack of a consistent high-class finisher.

Jacquet having surprisingly ignored the blossoming of Nicolas Anelka during Arsenal's surge to the Double, used Stephane Guivarc'h as his first-choice striker against the South Africans. The Newcastle-bound Auxerre player, whose unusual surname dates back to 12th- century Brittany, made the mistake of telling reporters before the match that he keeps a log of every goal he has scored "so I can remember them in my old age".

Guivarc'h could also start a catalogue of misses. He has now scored once in seven games for France and had already spurned two good opportunities before knee-ligament trouble forced him off midway through the first half. To compound his misfortune the replacement, Christophe Dugarry, scored within minutes of appearing. He also created the second goal donated by his Marseilles colleague, South Africa's Pierre Issa, but also demonstrated why he has only three goals to show for his 25 caps.

"Duga" failed at both Milan and Barcelona, and despite his present status as a player with the local club, it was significant that the crowd chanted for Jacquet to bring David Trezeguet on late in the game. Trezeguet duly appeared though it was left to his Monaco team-mate, Thierry Henry, to produce the only real example of the striker's art in stoppage time.

Henry, who Arsenal would like to pair with Anelka, is nominally a right- winger; one of several players Zinedine Zidane is expected to furnish with passes. Zidane, whose monkish pate makes him look like an extra from Cadfael, epitomised a mixed French display. Heavily built but with a deceptively light touch, a la Cantona he wears the No 10 shirt that was once synonymous with Michel Platini.

He showed glimpses of vision and precision yet it was all rather fitful, even against opponents long on endeavour but short on ideas and tactical awareness. There was, to put it bluntly, a lack of fantasy about the play of "ZizZou" and his cohorts. It may be an Anglo-centric perspective but David Ginola, a convert to the work ethic with Tottenham, would surely have helped make France less predictable.

Defensively, they should be as sound as any team. While Marcel Desailly will face sharper, cleverer forwards than Benny McCarthy and Phil Masinga, there was a ruthlessness about his tackling and covering that can only improve Chelsea's glass-jaw rearguard.

Despite their three goals, and for all the singing and dancing in the Boulevard Michelet long after the final whistle, one was left with the feeling that the failings which afflicted France at Euro 96 have not been fully rectified. On that occasion, when Zidane could not show English audiences why Jacquet preferred him to Cantona, they ground their way to the last four but could not score against the Czech Republic and lost on penalties.

Their next opponents, Saudi Arabia, are eminently beatable. In that case their last group match, against Denmark, may not have qualification riding on it. So the true test lies ahead for France and their coach. In the meantime, as the midfielder Alain Boghossian said in best Big-Ron-take- each-match-as-it-comes fashion: "Il faut prendre les matches les uns apres les autres."