Patrick Vieira tangling with his teenaged successor at Arsenal, Cesc Fabregas. Zinedine Zidane facing his fellow galacticos from Real Madrid in what may prove his farewell match. Thierry Henry against Luis Aragones, the coach who branded him a "black shit". If it's spicy subplots you want, look no further than Tuesday's second-round collision of France and Spain, with the French insisting their script still shows them going all the way to the final in Berlin a fortnight today.
On the evidence of the tortuous 2-0 win over Togo here on Friday, not to mention two previous draws, that would be a story line in the tradition of Dallas and EastEnders, bringing characters back from the dead. But one player shrugged off the burdens of criticism and expectation under which Les Bleus have been labouring. That man was Vieira, and his performance, both as stand-in captain and playmaker, gives Raymond Domenech a conundrum against Spain.
Zidane, who was suspended, watched the game against the West Africans on a dressing-room TV. He will retire after the tournament, so there was a possibility, as David Trezeguet kept spurning chances, that the glittering career of one of France's six remaining world champions of 1998 would end amid the tracksuits and tie-ups without him having kicked a ball in anger. "Zizou's" last act in the game would have been the yellow card he incurred against South Korea and the disdainful trudge past the coach after his bizarre stoppage-time substitution.
Instead he is available again to take on Raul, Iker Casillas and Co in Hanover. Domenech has never had any trouble accommodating Vieira and Zidane in the same midfield. The Juventus player has tended to be used alongside Claude Makelele in a holding role, with the three-time World Footballer of the Year taking an advanced position behind Henry - who, until the change of heart against Togo, operated as a lone striker. But Zidane's indisposition, and the absence of any obvious replacement such as Johan Micoud, offered Vieira the opportunity to reprise the attacking half of the box-to-box game he brought to Highbury.
He grasped it with a dynamism that belied reports of a nagging stomach-muscle injury, scoring the first goal and making the second for Henry. Now, though, Domenech must decide whether to retain a 4-4-2 formation, in which Zidane's waning physical power could be exposed, or revert to the 4-2-3-1 whereby the latter would be flanked by Franck Ribéry and Florent Malouda in the three-man unit. It is a tough call, for even a fading Zidane brings a creativity to the table that nobody else in the squad can match.
The suspicion must be that the former Lyon coach will restore him, possibly at the expense of Trezeguet. As Vieira revealed, Zidane's commitment to the cause remains strong. "Zizou made a speech in the changing room before the match, just as he normally does," he said. "And he was really happy with our victory."
Eric Abidal, who was also sitting out a one-match ban, watched the game with Zidane. "He didn't want to come out because it's not easy to be by the pitch when you're not playing," said the Lyon left-back. "Now he can go out on a high note. He still has important moments ahead. Spain will be a complicated match and we need him."
Complicated, not least, by the aforementioned subplots. Henry, who collected his 35th goal for France against the Togolese, will doubtless relish the prospect of punishing Aragones for his shameful assertion to his Arsenal colleague Jose Antonio Reyes that "you're better than that black shit". And Vieira, having turned 30 on Friday, has a score to settle with Fabregas, 19, following their Champions' League confrontation earlier this year.
Vieira felt the defeat of Togo, though scarcely convincing, could be a turning point for France. He is evidently pinning his hopes on the history which shows slow starters, like Italy when they lifted the trophy in 1982 and England in their run to the last four eight years later, gradually catching fire during the finals.
"There's great potential in this team," he said. "I hope qualifying will help us to play more freely, because we're not that bad at all."
Domenech's quandary is whether, having at last found a winning pattern, he risks losing it by shaking up the kaleidoscope again to fit in his country's most revered player. Vieira, who may very well have saved the coach's job, preferred to focus on the broad task rather than the nuances of systems and selection. "I've watched Spain and they look very good going forward," he said. "But we'll be ready."
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