Holders France meet England in one of the most eagerly awaited matches in the first round.
France enter the tournament as favourites to retain the trophy they won four years ago, while for England, an opportunity presents itself to demonstrate that they pose a genuine threat at the highest level.
More than just an international match, this game also represents a reunion for several players on each side. England skipper David Beckham will come into direct confrontation with his Real Madrid teammate Zinedine Zidane, while for the likes of Thierry Henry, Patrick Vieira, Robert Pires, there will be a sense of deja vu as they come to face to face with their Arsenal colleagues Sol Campbell and Ashley Cole.
Indeed of the 22 players expected to start tonight’s match, only four ply their trade outside the Premiership, providing the encounter with a distinct ‘derby’ feeling.
France, justifiably, are regarded as potential winners of the tournament. They have the talent, the experience, and after the pain they endured in Korea in 2002, they certainly have the desire to go all the way.
Therefore, today’s meeting will probably shed more light on England’s prospects. For instance, will Steven Gerrard be able to emulate his hugely impressive club form on the international stage? Will Wayne Rooney, who at 18, carries a huge burden for one so young, be able to emulate the impact Michael Owen made at France ’98? These are the imponderables which will probably determine the outcome.
France coach, Jacques Santini, aware that his team fear a repeat of their opening match defeat at the 2002 World Cup, admits that the match carries extra significance.
“I am looking at the group games as a block of three, but facing England has a little more spice,” he added.
“It will condition the rest, and will be a special occasion for the players such as Patrick Vieira who play in England.”
Meanwhile, England coach, Sven Goran Eriksson, is just relieved that the waiting is finally over.
“I have been waiting two years for this and it is what the job’s about,” he said.
“We have a difficult game against maybe the best team in the tournament on paper, but I’m confident we’re ready.”
“I don’t need to tell the players they can win if they play well on the day.
“They are motivated – if they weren’t they wouldn’t be here. There is respect for France in the squad but we are absolutely not afraid to go out there.”
Much of the pre-match speculation has revolved around the respective defences of both teams. Marcel Desailly, the most-capped player in France’s history, has been struggling to prove his form and fitness and will start the game on the bench. He will be replaced by Mikael Silvestre, whom Santini feels will be better equipped to cope with the pace of Michael Owen and the ingenuity of Rooney.
Desailly was sanguine about the fact that he will miss the opener.
“I am fine with the decision, “he said.
“I was a bit perturbed with my preparations as I have been carrying an injury and my knee is strapped.
“I think I am not quite 100% and if I had played it would have been very difficult against the English.
“To be 85% against the English is not good enough. There would have been too much focus on me.
“There are other players of exceptional quality who can step in for us. This match is so important for us.”
Striker David Trezeguet has recovered from an ankle injury and will replace Manchester United’s Louis Saha alongside Thierry Henry.
England defender John Terry is coach Sven-Goran Eriksson’s only absentee, although the significance of his loss cannot be overstated. His replacement is expected to be Ledley King, who will be making his first start for England in a competitive match.
France: Barthez; Gallas, Thuram, Silvestre, Lizarazu; Pires, Vieira, Makelele, Zidane; Henry, Trezeguet.
England: James, G Neville, Campbell, King, Cole, Beckham, Lampard, Gerrard, Scholes, Owen, Rooney.
Referee: Markus Merk (Germany)