Mike Gibbons is an aspiring young journalist
from the UK who has followed the World Cup with passion from an early age. He will share his views about the past, present and future of
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France Left Teetering On The Brink
Winning without playing well is the mark of a good team. We have seen it in several teams so far in this World Cup. England, Portugal and Brazil have all laboured to two wins so far, using the same principles of solidity at the back and putting away one or two of the chances they create. You suspect there is more to come from these teams, even if they are struggling to find their best form at the moment. Take the result and take it from there seems to be the philosophy. No-one wants to feel like the Ivory Coast, who have played two good matches and been eliminated.
With France, one of the favourites at the start of the tournament, the situation is different. They are not playing well and are not winning games, a dangerous combination that may soon see them back over the border with their tail between their legs. In conceding a sloppy late equaliser to South Korea last night, after letting the entire second half drift without creating chances, the French have put intolerable pressure on themselves for their final game on Friday.
I don’t know if the French squad have seen the performances of Argentina and Spain so far, but how they must have winced if they did. The movement, the pace, the sheer exuberance in attack…five years ago that was France. World and European champions, they had swept all before them. Half of that all-conquering team are still there now, but are pale imitations of their former selves. Others that have been drafted in to replace outgoing heroes have simply not been up to standard.
Dommenech’s faith in Fabien Barthez is utterly mystifying, especially with a goalkeeper of the calibre of Gregory Coupet brooding on the bench. At fault for Park Ji-Sung’s goal, his presence for the defenders is about as reassuring as a visit to an old folk’s home by the local undertaker. Beyond him stands France’s saving grace. Thuram and Gallas are class acts at centre-back, with Sagnol and Abidal more than capable full-backs. The real problems start directly in front of the back four.
It looks like Zidane has gone. Like Ronaldo, it has been painful to watch this former great plodding through the motions at half-speed. He survives on control, ball retention, short-passing and reputation. No longer can he set off on those elaborate, gliding runs through a defence, and those quick feet now operate for one or two touches only. Despite this he has been France’s best midfielder so far, although this only highlights how bad they have been in their opening two games.
Patrick Viera is another seemingly playing from memory, and Arsene Wenger looks totally justified in selling him to Juventus last year. Is this really the same barn-storming midfielder that once terrorised teams in England? He began the game well against the Koreans but the second half could be a metaphor for the last year of his career, such was the agonising drift into mediocrity.
His former colleague at Arsenal Sylvain Wiltord, given new life at Lyon, has been wretched so far and is lucky to still be in the team so careless is he in possession. The other creative options that have been tried – Ribery, Malouda, Dhorasoo – have been frustratingly inconsistent, finding good positions but lacking the crucial, killer pass. All of which serves to make Claude Makalele seem redundant. Winning the ball for his supposedly more gifted team-mates, as he does at Chelsea, possession is wasted time after time.
Staring back at this unholy mess is Thierry Henry, the lone forward player in Dommenech’s 4-5-1 system. It is a role he often assumes for Arsenal, where he has license to drift to the left as his colleagues flood through from midfield. At Highbury he can at times look pure poetry in motion, but in Germany he looks bewildered and lost. He did manage to score in Leipzig against the Koreans, but even that was laced with fortune as a mis-hit Wiltord shot deflected into his path for an easy finish. He would later miss a chance to win the game that brought echoes of his wastefulness in Paris in the Champions League final. His only other chances are trying to get on the end of looping, hopeful crosses that expose his lack of ability in the air.
Anaemic against Switzerland, Lazy against South Korea, will they be eliminated by Togo? Zidane is suspended for that match so changes are inevitable and, on the evidence of the first two games, advisable. There are few other attacking alternatives in midfield and the decision to omit Ludovic Giuly is now coming home to roost. Players who excel in the latter stages of the Champions League are form players, why on earth would Dommenech, with such meagre other resources, allow one to disappear on an Antipodean holiday this summer? Was he asleep when the Bayer Leverkusen contingent of Ballack, Neuville, Schneider, Ramelow and Lucio all appeared in the World Cup final in 2002 a mere 46 days after contesting the Champions League equivalent?
Even so, there is only so much difference one man could make to a team so lacking in belief. In need of a win against a Togo team who have had a fairly turbulent World Cup themselves, Dommenech would be advised to bin his over-cautious approach and put another striker up front alongside Henry, like the in form Louis Saha. Either Ribery or Dhorasoo must fill Zidane’s shoes, which they may find easier without the looming shadow of his presence next to them. Minus Zidane a more talented French team than this wilted in the Far East; a similar failure this time would be catastrophic.
You would think France should beat Togo, particularly in their disorganised state, but then most backed them to put away the lightweight Swiss and the super-fit but limited South Koreans. You cannot be sure of anything with this team, but unless they sort themselves out and quickly they are not much longer for this World Cup.
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