Santini ready for the long struggle

Alex Hayes
Sunday 25 August 2002 00:00
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They say a new international manager's first game sets the tone for the rest of his tenure. No wonder Jacques Santini looked so glum after France's disappointing 1-1 draw with Tunisia on Wednesday.

It is not, of course, the end of the world for the former rulers of the globe. This was only a friendly, and the season has only just begun in most European leagues – clubs in Italy and Spain have not yet kicked a ball in competition – so few of the French players will have been in full flow. That said, it is not so long ago that France would have eased to victory in this sort of low-key fixture.

The World Cup changed all that. Two defeats, one draw, and no goals scored were the sorry statistics as they surrendered their crown in June. Anxious to rediscover the touch which made France so dominant for so long, the French Football Federation reacted as aggressively as they ever have by sacking Roger Lemerre and appointing a new manager from outside the FFF. They clearly hoped that changing the general would bring instant dividends from the foot soldiers, but early signs are that the transition is unlikely to be quite so easy.

The greatest difficulty facing Santini is that he needs to accomplish three different tasks: replace any dead wood; change the overconfident attitudes; and, perhaps hardest of all, impose new ideas after a decade of continuity.

On the first issue, he has been helped by the retirements of Youri Djorkaeff, Frank Leboeuf and Chris-tophe Dugarry. Others, though, have not jumped. The 32-year-old Bixente Lizarazu did not step down, nor did Emmanuel Petit, 31, or Vincent Candela, 32. In the end, Santini may take the decision for them. At least the omission of Marcel Desailly from the starting line-up can be explained. The captain had a match against Manchester United on Friday, and was rested for the first 45 minutes.

So far as France's self-belief is concerned, Santini needs to tread carefully. One of the reasons for the World Cup failure was the players' refusal to believe they could be beaten. Having won the World Cup and the European Championship within two years, confidence was always going to be high. But while France's advantage used to be that they feared no one, their downfall owed much to their sudden belief that they did not always have to be at their best to win. The opening-day defeat to Senegal remains one of the biggest upsets in World Cup history, and a match that few French players want to talk about even today. Santini now needs to reinvigorate his team, while ensuring they do not repeat the sin of hubris.

The last of Santini's Herculean tasks is to change some of the tactics that came to symbolise Les Bleus and, eventually, made them all too predictable. The formation is something that the new coach is keen to address. His predecessor was criticised for his rigidity, especially when France needed a two-goal win against Denmark in their final group match.

Santini started the Tunisia friendly with a highly unusual 3-4-1-2, with Manchester United's Mickael Silvestre shining on the left of a back three, scoring France's opener on 18 minutes. Santini, who guided Lyon to the league title last season, then sent started the second half with 4-3-1-2, with Claude Makelele playing the old Didier Deschamps role alongside Patrick Vieira and Petit in midfield. Bizarrely, France looked less comfortable in that more traditional formation.

Supporters will be disappointed that their team came away with only a draw, after Ali Zitouni was allowed to equalise six minutes before the interval, but Santini is not downbeat. "We have a lot of work to do," he conceded, "but then I knew that." The task of ridding Les Bleus of the blues looks tougher than ever.

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