By Matthew Spiro
France travel to Slovenia tonight knowing that they need just one point from their final two matches to seal qualification for UEFA EURO 2004™ following Saturday's 5-0 drubbing of Cyprus.
The defending European champions have been in unstoppable form since their disastrous FIFA World Cup campaign in Korea/Japan, where they failed to score a single goal and were knocked out in the first phase. In the six qualifying matches under coach Jacques Santini they have found the net 24 times, conceding just twice, and look set to become the first country to join hosts Portugal in the lineup for next summer's finals.
The France camp is oozing confidence, and captain Marcel Desailly has no doubt they will get the point they need in Ljubljana. "We beat Slovenia 5-0 in the first match, so they are bound to be a little wary of us," the Chelsea FC defender said. "They have a few good players, but we have a team full of great players.
There is no question we should beat teams like Slovenia home and away."
David Trezeguet, scorer of two goals on Saturday, believes one of the main reasons for the glut of goals has been the change in tactics. "During the World Cup we played a fixed [4-2-3-1] system with just one striker but I feel happier with the 4-4-2 we play now," said the Juventus FC striker. "The players on the flanks are creating so many opportunities and I personally feel more comfortable with someone up alongside me. And in 'Titi' [Thierry Henry] we have the best forward in the world."
'We can still do better'
Worse news for France's opponents is that Trezeguet believes his partnership with Henry is still improving. "We can still do better," he insisted. "Once we have fine-tuned some minor details, we will be a real force." The striker dismissed the suggestion that France would go to Slovenia looking for a draw, saying: "
Our team is not built to play for draws. Moreover, we are not used to doing that. We'll go to Slovenia and try to win. Of course they'll want revenge for the 5-0, but if they give us the space we can hurt them again."
Zidane to return
France could make one change to the side that beat Cyprus, with midfield player Zinedine Zidane hoping to return from a thigh injury. Santini confirmed: "Zizou has had a few days to let the injury calm down. We wait and hope. But as we showed against Cyprus we can win matches well without him too. If he passes the test, he will play against Slovenia."
Slovenia lie second in Group 1 and although they are five points adrift of France, they still have a slim chance of winning the section. Buoyant from their 3-1 win against Israel on Saturday, in which Zlatko Zahovic - an injury doubt tonight with a thigh problem - played a starring role, Bojan Prašnikar's side can still take first place. However, to do so they must beat France and Cyprus in their final games, and hope Les Bleus lose their final game at home against Israel.
Avraham Grant's Israel, currently third in the group, will be hoping to put Saturday's disappointment behind him as they play host to Malta in Wednesday's other group fixture. The Israelis are also not entirely without hope, and could grab second place in the group - and a play-off spot - if they win their final two games and Slovenia lose both of theirs.
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