Two goals apiece from Thierry Henry and Zinedine Zidane helped France to their fourth successive victory in their UEFA EURO 2004™ qualifying campaign as they easily overcame Group 1 minnows Malta.
Jacques Santini's selection suggested that he is beginning to stamp his own mark on the French team with a new-look central defensive partnership of Mikaël Silvestre and William Gallas, FC Sochaux-Montbéliard midfielder Benoît Pedretti alongside Claude Makelele in midfield and Zidane sporting the captain's armband.
However, it was Malta who started brighter with Miguel Mifsud breaking in the first minute only to be stopped unceremoniously in his tracks by Fabien Barthez, who earned a yellow card for his heavy challenge outside the area. "There was a scare for Barthez in the first minute and I'm sure this was a wake-up call for the whole team," said France coach Jacques Santini.
France subsequently laid siege to the Maltese goal for much of the opening half, but their play was often more sound and fury than Gallic guile and French flair. Typical was an attempted header from David Trezeguet after 16 minutes that flew straight up in the air when the goal was at his mercy. The home side eventually established some rhythm with Sylvain Wiltord, Makelele and Trezeguet going close in quick succession before the half-hour.
France continued to pepper the Maltese goal but Pedretti and Zidane were both denied in quick success by saves from the excellent Mario Muscat. But the deadlock was finally broken after 37 minutes when Wiltord showed great control from Zidane's corner before blasting into the roof of the net.
After holding out for so long, the Maltese defence wilted again seconds later. Thierry Henry combined with Pedretti before firing in a low shot that Muscat could only help into his own net. The pattern continued in the second half and France scored their third after 53 minutes with a bullet header from Henry for his 16th international goal.
Zidane on the spot
Two minutes later it was 4-0 with captain Zidane slotting home a penalty awarded after a foul on Bixente Lizarazu. After briefly lowering the tempo France scored again after 70 minutes with Henry this time the provider. A brilliant turn and run from halfway took the Arsenal FC striker clear on the right and he pulled the ball across goal for Trezeguet to finish easily at the far post. "We know each other very well as we've come though the youth ranks together and I think you could see that tonight," said Henry of his partnership with Trezeguet.
France continued to press, albeit with less urgency, and Zidane headed his second goal of the match to complete the scoring after 80 minutes. "
I think we produced a high-quality match," Santini said. "Zidane was very good and we were not troubled after the first two goals. More importantly, we kept on playing and scoring goals. There was a big crowd today and I think we've pleased the 40,000 or so who were here."