By Christian Châtelet
France were back to their scintillating best at the weekend, putting their disappointing FIFA World Cup behind them, with a rousing 5-0 EURO 2004™ qualifying defeat of Slovenia in Paris.
The performance evoked memories of the side that won France 98 and the UEFA European Championship in 2000 and will have those predicting the demise of French football eating their words. Slovenia are generally considered to be France's main challengers in Group 1, but with maximum points from two games, Jacques Santini's side now turn their attentions to Malta on Wednesday knowing victory will put them firmly in charge of their own destiny. It will be the only midweek game in the group, as Israel's home match with Cyprus has been switched to next year.
Full of praise
The French press was full of praise for Les Bleus. "Signs of a rebirth," said Le Figaro, while the headline in Liberation read: "The Big Blue". The pundits, who had not all welcomed Santini's appointment, are predicting that the World Cup problems are over in what L'Equipe called "The great comeback". However, Santini, who replaced Roger Lemerre after the finals in the Far East, is urging caution. "At this stage of the competition nothing is clear, things can change," he said.
Santini's caution is understandable but France seem to have recovered their attacking prowess. And the introduction of new faces such as Steve Marlet of Fulham FC and Chelsea FC's William Gallas has also helped revitalise the team. Marlet, who scored twice against Slovenia, could not hide his delight after his reunion with his former club coach Santini, whom he worked with at Olympique Lyonnais. "I am overjoyed at scoring twice," he said. "It is something I have not managed with Fulham, and I hope I've given the coach something to remember."
Santini has adopted a different tactical approach to that of Lemerre, switching to a 4-4-2 formation rather than the 4-3-1-2 adopted by his predecessor. Santini also moved Arsenal FC's Thierry Henry from the left wing to his now more customary centre-forward position. Zinedine Zidane, their inspiration for so long, also appeared to be back to his best following a World Cup hampered by injury.
Santini also chose to pair captain Marcel Desailly, in his 100th international, with his club-mate, Gallas, in the centre of defence. Using club pairings is a tactic he seems keen on with a Real Madrid CF central midfield made up of Zidane and Claude Makelele.
However, Malta in Ta' Qali will not be easy. They have no injury worries and midfield stalwarts Gilbert Agius and Joe Brincat are both expected to be fit. PFC Lokomotiv Sofia's Stefan Giglio should back after his one-game suspension following his red card in Malta's opening 3-0 defeat against Slovenia in Ljubljana ruled him out of Saturday's home defeat by Israel.
Malta are also not burdened by any weight of expectation. As Birkirkara FC striker Chucks Nwoko said: "We know that the game against such a high-profile side as France is going to be tough. But the pressure will definitely not be on the Maltese. The French are the ones who should worry about pressure. We must produce the best performance of our lives in order to get a positive result against them." Especially now the French seem to be enjoying themselves once again.
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