Cyprus 1-2 France
Sylvain Wiltord's rasping strike seven minutes into the second half gave Jacques Santini his first win as France coach on Saturday, but in was another nervy display from the European champions as they edged past Cyprus 2-1 in this EURO 2004™ Group 1 qualifying tie at the GSP stadium.
The Arsenal FC striker collected the ball five metres from the Cyprus area and unleashed a powerful drive into the top left corner of Nicos Pantiougou's goal to calm a France side who had fallen behind after only 15 minutes.
The deposed world champions, without a win in four matches, had enjoyed plenty of possession in the opening stages, but it was Cyprus who struck first. Yiannakis Okkas beat a hesitant Claude Makelele to Rainer Rauffmann's deep cross then produced a delightful chip that left Olympique Lyonnais keeper Grégory Coupet rooted to his line.
France lack punch
Santini had called for the start of a new era and a new "commando spirit" before the match, but France, in the absence of David Trezeguet and Thierry Henry, again lacked a cutting edge and struggled to convert possession into clear-cut chances. Panagiotou had to be alert to stop shots from Djibril Cissé and Steve Marlet after Okkas's strike, but the massed ranks of the Cyprus defence proved a constant source of frustration for Santini's side.
At the other end, Okkas continued to pose problems for the France back four on the counter-attack, but the visiting side's nerves were eased six minutes from the break when Cissé pounced on an error from Demetris Daskalakis. Daskalakis was unable to clear under pressure from the AJ Auxerre striker who latched onto the loose ball to shoot low past Panagiotou. The goal saved Santini's blushes at the interval, but France failed to lift the tempo after the break. Again France dominated possession but despite the patient probing of Zinedine Zidane, the France midfield was unable to find a way through a resolute Cyrpus defence.
Seven minutes into the second half, however, the complexion of the match changed when Wiltord picked up a loose ball in the centre of midfield and without hesitation rifled home from the edge of the D. With the lead, France were comfortably able to play out the clock, but another edgy display did little to suggest that Les Bleus have turned the corner after their FIFA World Cup disappointment.