France have opened up a nine-point lead at the top of UEFA EURO 2004™ Group 1 but did so with an unconvincing display against Israel in Palermo.
On the brink
The reigning European champions have won all five of their qualifying games so far, having scored 19 goals and conceded just two, and are overwhelming favourites to reach the finals in Portugal next year.
However, the French followed Saturday's resounding 6-0 victory against Malta with an uncertain start tonight. They surprisingly fell behind after only two minutes as Israel, who are currently unable to play in their home country because of the security situation in the Middle East, began brightly.
Midfield player Haim Revivo set Omri Afek free, who sprinted beyond the striker and outpaced Bixente Lizarazu to score with an angled shot from close range. The goal seemed to take France unawares, and for several minutes they were unable to impose themselves on their opponents.
Inspired by Zinedine Zidane, the holders gradually worked their way back into the game and drew level after 23 minutes as Thierry Henry produced a fine cross and his strike partner David Trezeguet headed the equaliser.
The goal gave France confidence, but Jacques Santini's side still struggled to break down a packed Israel defence. Israel relied on rapid counterattacks to threaten their opponents and twice came close to taking the lead only to fall behind in first-half stoppage time as Zidane's shot was deflected beyond Dudu Awat to give France the lead.
Tight second period
The second half was a similarly tight affair with Israel introducing Michael Zandberg and Walid Badir in a bid to find a way back into the game. As France sought to protect their narrow advantage, Israel were the better side but were unable to plot a path through their illustrious opponents' defence.
'We were a mess'
Santini was brutally honest with his assessment of his side's display. "It was a really tough game, and you can guess my feeling from the tone of my voice," he said. "We have seen two different Frances tonight and we will to give this situation some thought. We never were at the right pace. We failed to communicate properly throughout the match and our set-up was a mess both when defending or attacking."
In contrast, Israel coach Avraham Grant admitted he was proud of his team's performance, but said that the manner of the defeat had disappointed him. "A lot of people back home should be encouraged by the performance of my team tonight," he said. "We made France waste time in the final minutes, but feel extremely disappointed that we will travel back home with nothing. To take the lead but then concede two soft goals is something that shouldn't happen at this level."