Lemerre relies on plan ZZ to save him from the nightmare

By Alex Hayes
Monday 20 January 2014 03:43
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The French go to the voting booths today to elect a new parliament. It is supposed to be one of the most important days in the country's Fifth Republic, as the left and the right desperately try to fight off the threat of the National Front. But nobody cares. The target of the majority used to be Jean-Marie Le Pen – now it is Roger Lemerre.

Such is the level of disappointment with Les Bleus that pollsters are predicting a record low turn-out for the legislative elections. The French are distraught.

Despite the bookies' predictions, not everyone in France expected the defending champions to repeat their triumph of four years ago. But not even the most serious of doubters had envisaged a first-round exit. You have to rewind the clock to 1966 for the last time the holders, then Brazil, failed to qualify for the second round.

Lemerre's team now require a two-goal victory over Denmark to ensure their passage. That may not have seemed too difficult a task for the free-flowing Bleus as recently as a few weeks ago, but confidence is clearly low. Worse, the goals have dried up. Most bookmakers were offering 9-1 for a goal-less draw against Uruguay on Thursday, while none had even considered the possibility of France failing to score a single goal throughout the tournament. There is a certain irony in the fact that the French won the last World Cup without a recognised striker, yet could fall at the first this time with some great forwards. David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry are the top goal-scorers in the Italian and English leagues respectively. Neither, though, has looked likely to score, and Henry may not get another chance in Japan and South Korea after he was sent off for a reckless tackle in the 0-0 draw against Uruguay.

If ever there was a time for the world's best footballer to enter the tournament, this is it. France may think they can survive without Zinedine Zidane, but the truth is that the Real Madrid midfielder makes all the difference to the team. Youri Djorkaeff tried and failed miserably to replace Zizou in the opening game, Johan Micoud fared little better on Thursday. Without Zidane, France simply lack invention. More worrying is that they appear to lack spirit, too. You might have thought that ZZ's absence would make the rest of the team more determined to prove that they can operate without their talisman. Instead, they have looked like a group of boy scouts who have lost their leader.

No wonder, then, the French press are demanding the return of the leader. Yes, demanding. Having had to bite their collective tongue for four years and keep their opinions largely to themselves because of the success of the France 98 manager, Aimé Jacquet, the time to have their say is fast approaching.

So far, they have been hedging their bets, implying criticism rather than openly blaming individuals, but the knives are being sharpened for a possible execution on Tuesday. "Hanging on by a thread," said one headline; "Win or bust," said another.

Indeed, this could be a case of win or bust for an entire generation. Should France fail to reach at least the last eight, changes will be made. Lemerre signed a two-year extension to his contract only weeks ago, but his position would become untenable if France went out on Tuesday.

Although he led the World Cup winners to success in the European Championship two years ago, Lemerre has lacked courage in too many of his recent squad selections. He has also lacked flexibility in his tactical approach, using only one formation for every one of France's friendlies.

Were he to be replaced – perhaps by Fulham's Jean Tigana, who cannot be too happy with the arrival in West London of Franco Baresi – those older players who might have considered prolonging their stay in the French team would also be dispatched. "This could definitely be the end of an era," said Vincent Duluc, football correspondent of the sports newspaper L'Equipe.

It is ironic that, if this French side do make an early exit, they will have gone full circle emotionally. Most of these players started their international careers in the depressing aftermath of the failed qualification campaign for USA 94, before going on to conquer the world.

Now, they look vulnerable again. France have not quite regressed, but you wonder why they have arrived at this World Cup so short of fitness and confidence.

Emmanuel Petit, who will miss the Denmark showdown through suspension, feels that the French must now throw caution to the wind on Tuesday. "We still have everything to play for," he says. And everything to lose.

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