By Matt Gatward
Following disappointing FIFA World Cup campaigns Zinedine Zidane and Zlatko Zahovic can go some way towards making amends for their respective countries when France host Slovenia in a EURO 2004™ qualifier on Saturday.
Eye for goal
Zidane missed France's opening two World Cup matches in Korea/Japan because of injury. It was obvious the team missed his ability to unlock defences and his eye for goal. However on his return, when the French met Denmark in a game they had to win, Zidane, not fully fit, was unable to provide the necessary inspiration and the Danes won 2-0. France were eliminated without a point or a goal.
Zahovic, like Zidane, is his team's creative catalyst. He makes goals with his incisive through-balls but also takes them with nonchalance. However, he did not even see out the World Cup's opening stages as he was sent home following a dispute with then coach Srecko Katanec. "Zahovic is a phenomenal player but my players have sacrificed their egos for the benefit of the team," Katanec said at the time. Slovenia paid the price of losing the man who has scored 32 goals in 67 internationals with elimination at the same stage as France.
Both countries have since made fresh starts, bringing in new coaches. Bojan Prasnikar has taken charge of Slovenia and Jacques Santini has replaced Roger Lemerre. Now Zidane and Zahovic, restored to the team under Prasnikar, are charged with ensuring EURO 2004™ goes more smoothly than the World Cup. Both teams started their qualifying campaigns with wins - France beat Cyprus and Slovenia defeated Malta - but with Israel, who travel to Malta on Saturday, making up Group 1 it is Slovenia and France who should be contesting automatic qualification.
The two teams have met once before, in Paris in an April 2000 friendly and the then world champions were given a scare. Two-nil down after ten minutes, Lemerre's side needed a late David Trezeguet goal to rescue a 3-2 win.
'Back on track'
The 31-year-old Zahovic started out with FK Beograd in Yugoslavia at the age of 18. He then moved to Vitória Guimarães in Portugal where he caught FC Porto's eye. He helped Porto to three successive league titles from 1997-99 and was top scorer in the UEFA Champions League in the 1998/99 season. After a troubled stint at Valencia CF, he is now back in Portugal at SL Benfica. "I am definitely back on the right track. After all the problems I fell into during last season, I think I have found my rhythm," Zahovic said.
However, the 30-year-old Zidane is similarly upbeat. Real Madrid CF are flying in the Champions League with Zidane scoring twice last week in a 3-3 draw at AEK Athens FC and he started the 5-2 demolition of Deportivo Alavés at the weekend with the opening goal.
He has announced he is to retire from the international game after Portugal and is looking forward to one final fling with the French team. "We will do everything to qualify for EURO 2004," he said. "A new adventure is starting."
While Zidane hopes to end this adventure with silverware, Malta's aim is to avoid taking the group's wooden spoon. Coach Siegfried Held has has named an unchanged squad for the visit of an Israel side struggling with with fitness problems. Defender Gadi Brumer has left the camp because of injury, goalkeeper Dudu Awat suffered concussion in training on Monday, and playmakers Eyal Berkovic and Haim Revivo are both carrying knocks.
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