By Paul Saffer
France have already ensured that they will be defending their UEFA European Championship title in Portugal next summer - but that does not mean they will not be giving their final qualifier at home to Israel their full attention.
With seven wins so far, the holders have a chance to complete the only perfect record in any of the ten qualifying groups - only the third time that feat will have been achieved in the European Championships. And coach Jacques Santini has named a strong squad despite injuries to defenders Marcel Desailly, Mikaël Silvestre and Willy Sagnol and suspensions to midfield players Patrick Vieira and Claude Makelele.
These absences have given Santini an ideal chance to give a game to the men that will be competing for the remaining places in the finals party. Versatile Olympique Lyonnais full-back Anthony Réveillère has a chance for a first senior cap, and shows the confidence that goes with being on the fringes of such a successful national side.
Ahead of training with the full squad at their Clairefontaine base, Réveillère said: "I know this place well thanks to the time I spent with the Under-21s.
To progress to the full national team is a goal for every player. My ability to play both on the left or on the right has helped me."
Réveillère is not the only defender in line for a possible debut. With Desailly sidelined by a hip injury - Zinedine Zidane will wear the captain's armband - and his Chelsea FC club-mate William Gallas hurting his calf in training, AS Monaco FC defender Sébastien Squillaci has been added to the squad. He said: "It is a surprise for me. Competition for places in the centre of defence is especially strong in the France squad."
With Makelele and Vieira out, Santini is turning to the central midfield partnership that stepped in when the duo missed the 2003 FIFA Confederations Cup - Olivier Dacourt and Benoît Pedretti. France retained that trophy, earning the pair the coach's full confidence.
It is only natural that Pedretti and Dacourt start on Saturday," Santini said. "I have no worries about selecting those two. They are two players who know each other's games well and they are only going to get better as a partnership and also individually by playing more."
Competition for places
Bringing in the likes of Pedretti, Squillaci, Réveillère, Ludovic Giuly and Ousmane Dabo will also give France a competition for places that could serve them well in Portugal - since the only two teams to qualify with 100 per cent records in the past, France in 1992 and the Czech Republic eight years later, both promptly failed to progress past the finals group stage.
As for their opponents, Israel are looking to finish on a high after being held by Malta, and are ringing the changes with the exclusion of Eyal Berkovic, who scored one of Israel's late goals in Paris ten years ago when their 3-2 win led to France missing out on the FIFA World Cup finals.
Meanwhile, Slovenia, who pipped Israel to second place in Group 1, will hope to go into Monday's play-off draw on a high by beating Cyprus in Limassol. But the home team have an incentive too - victory for them and defeat for Israel would give Cyprus their first ever top-three finish in a European Championship qualifying group.
Additional reporting by Matthew Spiro
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