By Mark Robinson
Coimbra is the venue tonight as Euro 2004 favourites and defending champions France look to finally confirm their place in the quarter-finals by avoiding defeat against Switzerland.
Form over the last few years and a glance at both team sheets would point to a convincing French victory, but the Swiss will look to take advantage of Croatia’s surprising 2-2 draw with the French on Thursday night.
It was a result that earned Switzerland a stay of execution at the finals, after their 3-0 loss to England earlier in the day seemed destined to put them out of the competition. A win tonight, combined with a positive result for either team in the Croatia vs England game, would see the Swiss progress.
Examination of past results between the two sides points surprisingly to a close game this evening. This is the first competitive contest between the Alpine neighbours, but in 32 friendly matches the French only have a slight edge with 14 victories to 12, and 58 goals scored to 56.
However, French coach Jacques Santini will be confident of his team doing enough to secure a safe passage into the knockout stages. Of all the players in the Swiss squad, it is doubtful that any would dislodge one of Les Bleus if the option became available to the Tottenham bound manager.
Swiss hopes will rest on two key points. Firstly, that they were far closer to England on Thursday than the 3-0 defeat suggests. Secondly, Latvia, Greece and Croatia have already proved that the underdogs in these finals should not be taken lightly.
Santini has found himself under increasing pressure as the tournament has progressed. The relief that surrounded the last gasp 2-1 over England in their opening match gave way to a feeling in the French media that the English were unlucky, while the French coach’s promise of a better performance against the Croatians never materialised.
Criticism has been forthcoming from within the squad as well as outside it, with veteran fullback Bixente Lizarazu publicly questioning Santini’s tactics following the disappointing draw on Thursday night.
“I have my own method,” Santini told the press yesterday in response to Lizarazu’s outburst.
“If some players want to express themselves in the media then that is their right. They are professionals. But those who do speak out are under pressure.”
The coach also admitted that France have so far not performed to their real abilities and that he is looking for a positive response this evening against the Swiss.
“France have not been quick enough, we need to be more spontaneous,” he revealed.
“Hopefully tonight we will finally show our true colours.”
Both Robert Pires and Claude Makelele are in line for recalls to the French midfield following the disappointing draw with the Croatians. Makelele has recovered from a problem with his collarbone and will partner Patrick Vieira at the heart of the French midfield. Pires should reclaim his place on the right wing from former Arsenal colleague Sylvain Wiltord.
Santini claims that France will attack this evening, despite only needing a point to secure their passage into the knockout stages. Not only would it silence some of the doubters, but a win would set up a potentially easier quarter final for his team as the group winners will play Greece in the quarter finals instead of the hosts Portugal, who await the runners up.
“We want to win,” said Santini yesterday. “We are still calm and confident.”
“We have to be cautious, but we will attack with strength and try to score early on.”
With the misfiring Thierry Henry and David Trezeget set to continue up front, the main question mark surrounds the defence, and in particular skipper Marcel Desailly. The Chelsea centre half came in for criticism in France and beyond for his performance against Croatia. As it happens, Desailly’s lack of fitness may save Santini from having to make a difficult decision this evening.
“I have not been training and I am getting older,” the 116-cap skipper admitted to the press yesterday.
“There is a question mark over my participation against Switzerland.”
If Desailly fails to make the starting line up then Santini still has further decisions to agonise over. Mikael Silvestre of Manchester United is one yellow card away from missing the quarter-finals and has given away two penalties in as many matches. If Desailly is not passed fit, however, he is likely to retain his place though William Gallas is certainly capable of slotting in at centre half, making way for Willy Sagnol at right back.
Bayern Munich’s Sagnol has been quick to point out the hurdle that France have to overcome each time they take the field.
“They have parked a bus in front of our goal,” complained the fullback of his opponents’ defensive tactics so far.
It is a tactic that the French will no doubt have to overcome again this evening.
Switzerland will enter tonight’s crucial game without the services of main striker Alexander Frei. Despite being initially cleared by UEFA, new evidence has prompted the Swiss FA and the player to make him unavailable for tonight’s game after he was accused of spitting at England’s Steven Gerrard in the 3-0 defeat on Thursday afternoon. Daniel Gygax, used as a substitute so far, will probably be promoted from the bench in Frei’s place.
“Alexander Frei and the Swiss FA have decided together that he will not take part in tonight’s match whatever the decision of UEFA may be,” a Swiss statement read this morning.
PSV’s Johann Vogel will return to the starting lineup against France, having served his one match ban for a red card against Croatia in the opening match. He will replace Marseille’s Fabio Celestini in the centre of the Swiss midfield.
Bernt Haas was dismissed in the defeat against England, and his space may well be filled by Liverpool defender Stephane Henchoz. Henchoz’s favoured position is centre half, but he has filled in at right back on a number of occasions for his club and his experience will probably ensure his selection tonight.
Kuhn told the media that he was stressing the need for discipline in tonight’s game, citing the two red cards received so far as major factors in his team’s lack of points.
“The trouble is, we have played almost all the second half of both our games with only 10 men,” he complained.
“Against Croatia we overcame this handicap, but against England it killed us.”
Kuhn also hoping his players find their shooting boots. His team have fired blanks in 180 minutes of finals football so far, and if they are to cause an upset and progress then the coach knows that this statistic must change. It is a task that will not be made any easier by the absence of main target man Frei.
“I don’t think we have general problems going forward, rather our problem is a lack of confidence in front of goal,” said the 64 year-old coach.
“Tiredness has also been a problem for us. We have to hope that those who have played two games have recuperated both mentally and physically.”
Benjamin Huggel is also suspended after two yellow cards, and there will therefore be a vacancy in midfield. It will probably be taken by 25 year-old Ricardo Cabanas of Grasshoppers.
The Swiss players remain optimistic of causing an upset tonight. Playmaker Hakan Yakin, seen by many as his country’s best hope of a goal this evening, is quietly confident ahead of the game and warns that France will be in for a shock if they underestimate his team.
“It’s our last chance and every player must go into the match with the attitude that they must seize their chance,” Hakan Yakin said.
“Maybe France will be a bit nervous and will believe that they won’t have to play at the peak of their game against us. That’s our chance.”
Defender Patrick Muller, who will face his former Lyon coach Santini tonight, is also confident of an upset.
“We wanted a different scenario ahead of this game but why shouldn’t we beat France ? The chance might be small but at least there is one,” he claimed.
France: Barthez; Gallas, Thuram, Silvestre, Lizarazu; Pires, Makelele, Vieira, Zidane; Henry, Trezeguet
Switzerland: Stiel; Henchoz, Murat Yakin, Muller, Spycher; Cabanas, Vogel, Wicky; Hakan Yakin; Gygax, Chapuisat
Referee: Lubos Michel (Slovakia)