It may seem like madness for France to discard the genius of Eric Cantona, even if his can be a gift that overpowers, but last night they gave a hint as to why. They not only won their first exchange of Euro 96, they gave glimpses of grace that will have alerted the likes of Germany, Italy and the other favourites.
Christophe Dugarry got the goal, profiting from a crass error by the Romanian goalkeeper, Bogdan Stelea, in the 24th minute, although it was the two players immediately behind him who took the eye. Youri Djorkaeff, slightly withdrawn from his usual out-and-out striker's position, and Zinedine Zidane completely bewildered their opponents with their runs and deft passes. On this evidence, they will take some stopping.
Which was all the more meritorious because they were the men whose presence made Cantona disposable. The French coach, Aime Jacquet, had jettisoned the Manchester United striker but his presence was still there, the parameters of the performance set by his and David Ginola's absence.
Perhaps this imposing benchmark affected the French initially, because it was the Romanians who had the better opening, Gheorghe Hagi and Marius Lacatus often cutting their way through. France's much-vaunted reputation seemed a mirage but they burst out of their languor in thrilling style. Djorkaeff signalled the change of mood with a spectacular swivel and shot after 21 minutes, an alarm that would prove a prelude to France taking the lead two minutes later.
Djorkaeff, in space on the right, spotted that Dugarry was on the blind side of his marker and floated across a centre. Milan's new striker had an advantage but it was not necessarily a decisive one until Stelea decided to leave his senses as well as his line. Dugarry, barely inside the area, got the touch with the back of his head and, with the Romanian goalkeeper stranded, the ball bounced innocuously into an empty net.
Hagi, even at 31, still has touches that other players dream about and twice in the next 10 minutes he had French pulses racing. First he appeared in the area only for Bernard Lama to save his volley, then he shaved a post with a dribble and shot.
The Romanians brought on Adrian Ilie and Dinu Moldovan in the first 10 minutes after the interval but their introduction did nothing to halt the flow towards their goal. Indeed, the French began to add embellishments, the odd flick here, a dummy there.
Djorkaeff, in particular, was an outstanding influence and it was the Romanians' preoccupation with him that allowed Christian Karembeu space at the near post. He almost got a touch to a lovely left-wing cross from Vicent Guerin and then was just wide with a flick with his foot from a corner.
Another goal did not come but an important victory did, one that was felt by both sides. As the Romanian coach, Anghel Iordanescu, put it: "It will be very hard to come back from such a psychological blow. Unfortunately we gave away a soft goal and that influenced how the rest of the match went. It will be difficult for us to qualify now."
Goal: Dugarry (24) 0-1.
ROMANIA (5-2-2-1): Stelea (Steaua Bucharest); Petrescu (Chelsea), Mihali (Guingamp), Belodedici (Villareal), Lupescu (Bayer Leverkusen), Selymes (Anderlecht); Popescu, Hagi (Barcelona); Lacatus (Steaua Bucharest), Munteanu (Cologne); Raducioiu (Espanol). Substitutes: Moldovan (Neuchatel Xamax) for Raducioiu, h-t; Ilie (Steaua Bucharest) for Lacatus, 55; Filipescu (Steaua Bucharest) for Petrescu, 80.
FRANCE (4-3-2-1): Lama (Paris St-Germain); Thuram (Parma), Blanc (Barcelona), Desailly (Milan), Di Meco (Monaco); Karembeu (Sampdoria), Deschamps (Juventus), Guerin (Paris St-Germain); Djorkaeff (Internazionale), Zidane (Bordeaux); Dugarry (Milan). Substitutes: Lizarazu (Bordeaux) for Di Meco, 68; Loko (Paris St-Germain) for Dugarry, 68; Roche (Paris St-Germain) for Zidane, 80.
Referee: H Krug (Germany).
Bookings: Romania: Mihali, Selymes, Ilie. France: Di Meco.
Man of the match: Djorkaeff.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies