France Plans Goals
By Amy Shipley
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, July 5, 1998; Page D13
France has advanced to the semifinals for only the fourth time, repeating its World Cup-best achievements of 1958, '82 and '86. Yet, all their fans can do is worry. Friday's 4-3 victory in penalty kicks after 120 scoreless minutes featured a French team that dominated play from one end of the field to almost the other.
And therein lies the perceived problem. In its past two matches, France has controlled everything except the area between its opponent's goal posts. In the round of 16, France forced Paraguay into a defensive shell, but did not gain a 1-0 victory until sudden-death overtime, when the team came within seven minutes of having to beat star goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert in penalty kicks.
"Our lack of efficiency in front of the goal is our main weakness," French midfielder Didier Deschamps said. "That didn't show in our first three matches, but it has been obvious since."
For France, a nation with a long history of World Cup failure it didn't even qualify for the 1990 and '94 tournaments the recent scoring woes hovered over training today like storm clouds.
Friday's match, however, highlighted the muscle and finesse of France's multitalented defenders, Laurent Blanc, Marcel Desailly and Lilian Thuram, who have anchored a remarkable defensive wall. In five matches, spanning 504 minutes, the French have not allowed any goals during the run of play. (The only goal against France was a penalty kick by Denmark's Michael Laudrup in the 42nd minute of France's third first-round match.) Friday's game also showcased the feather-touch passing of midfielder Zinedine Zidane, who returned to the lineup after a two-match absence because of a red card.
"We have a good feeling altogether," defender Frank LeBoeuf said. "It's so important to have a good defense because if you don't concede any goals, you will have some chances to score."
France certainly had scoring chances Friday night-24 shots. The team's inability to convert highlighted its undeniable weakness up front. For France to win the championship, it likely will have to produce more than one goal in the next two games-its total production in its past two.
"Just like against Paraguay, we were very uncomfortable against a side that closes the game down so much," midfielder Emmanuel Petit said. "We knew the Italians were trying to take it to penalties."
Against Paraguay, France's only goal came on a shot by Blanc a defender. In that match, France outshot Paraguay, 34 to 12, but looked ragged at the final stages of offensive buildups.
Zidane returned to the lineup Friday and quickly began doing the work for which he is famous, setting up teammates with perfectly placed passes. On a mind-boggling number of occasions, however, Zidane's artistic strokes turned into unmemorable smudges, bungled most often by Stephane Guivarc'h or Youri Djorkaeff, a midfielder who slides forward into a withdrawn striker position when France moves into an attack.
The French team's forwards possess neither the technical skills of Germany's Juergen Klinsmann nor the scoring acumen of Italy's Christian Vieri. The various bandages French Coach Aime Jacquet has applied to that problem have merely covered it, not cured it.
During World Cup qualifying, Jacquet frequently bemoaned the French team's lack of a superstar forward. His limited choices at that position come in two classes: experienced and merely adequate or potential star caliber but barely past adolescence.
Jacquet has mixed veterans with young talent to achieve moderate success. Guivarc'h, a 27-year-old with plenty of goals for the club team Auxerre but little international experience, has received two starts including Friday's match. Thierry Henry, 20, who competed in the junior world championships last year, has started three matches and scored a team-high three goals. A sprained ankle prevented him from starting Friday, but he played in the second half to no great effect.
Christophe Dugarry, an average striker for French club Olympique Marseille, started one match, France's second, before suffering a hamstring injury. He trained with the team today and should be ready for Wednesday's match. Jacquet also has experimented with Robert Pires, 24, and David Trezeguet, 20, who plays with Henry for Monaco.
With all players healthy, it's unclear which combination Jacquet will employ Wednesday.
The French opened the World Cup with seven goals combined against South Africa and Saudi Arabia two relatively weak teams. France has scored just three goals in the three matches since. Still, even if French fans are nervously shaking their heads, players on this resilient and surprising French team are holding theirs high.
"We know the main thing is to win-it doesn't matter how," Trezeguet said. "We're dead set on winning this World Cup in France."
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