The second of today’s opening World Cup Group G matches features the two favourites to progress to the second round, 1998 champions France and tournament regulars Switzerland.
Despite not qualifying since 1994, 1954 hosts Switzerland have a rich World Cup history and will be hoping to produce an upset against an increasingly troubled French team in Stuttgart this afternoon.
The two Alpine nations know each other well, having met thirty-five times in all competitions. France have a clear edge over their neighbours, but recent match-ups have ended in stalemate. After they were drawn together in the same qualifying group, both fixtures ended in draws – meaning that the Swiss will enter this afternoon’s clash with little to fear.
French preparations have been dominated by the return to the international fold of several aging stars, and the ensuing debate amongst fans and media as to the merits of their inclusion. In addition to this, several other key players have not been in their best form for their clubs and the squad was rocked last week by a broken leg to Liverpool striker Djibril Cisse. The pressure is on France to perform at this World Cup after a miserable showing in Japan and Korea in 2002. The then holders were defeated in the opening match by unheralded Senegal and failed to recover properly, ultimately crashing out of the tournament in the opening round.
All of these factors has led to a large build up of pressure on the squad and the coach, former Under-21 boss Raymond Domenech. He took charge of the team after France’s quarter-final exit at Euro 2004 and has lost just one match in his tenure so far. However, some disjointed performances in qualifying and his eagerness to unconditionally welcome back so many aging stars has meant that his popularity and job security are not assured. For Domenech, the acid test begins this afternoon.
Zinedine Zidane, Claude Makelele and Liliam Thuram all reversed their decisions to retire from international football after Euro 2004 during the qualifying campaign, and all are almost certain to feature in France’s starting eleven for the duration of the tournament. Of the three players only Chelsea’s Makelele has managed to retain his best form over the last twelve months, with Zidane and Thuram both struggling with injuries and form for Real Madrid and Juventus respectively. This has not stopped Domenech publicly declaring that his World Cup team would be built round Zidane, arguably the finest footballer of his generation and a national hero in France. In what will be the Marseille-born midfielder’s swansong, he has many questions to answer. The fate of his coach, as well as his nation’s World Cup hopes, rest on his shoulders.
Having left Arsenal in the summer of 2005, Patrick Vieira’s move to Italian champions Juventus began brightly. However, the second half of his season saw his form dip, and despite winning the Serie A title in his first season there have been persistent rumours linking him with a move away from Turin. He has also suffered several niggling injuries, and the disciplinary problems that hindered his early career surfaced again in Juventus’ Champions League quarter-final defeat by his old club. At his best Vieira is a driving and dominant presence in midfield and worthy of a place in any side, but like Zidane he has become a target for the French media and must prove he is still the force of old.
There are, however, three reasons for Les Bleus to be hopeful. Chelsea’s William Gallas is one of the most versatile and effective defenders in Europe, and will be delighted that Domenech has promised to play him in his preferred position of centre-half. Thierry Henry remains the world’s most coveted striker and is capable of winning any match with a moment of inspiration. The one thing he has lacked in his career to date is a stellar showing at a major tournament, but at 28 the Arsenal man is at the peak of his powers.
Finally, the injury to Cisse means a first start for the exciting Marseille winger, Franck Ribery. Henry will be deployed as a lone striker, with Zidane, Lyon’s Sylvain Wiltord and the 23 year-old Ribery operating behind him in a 4-2-3-1 formation. Ribery has become the hottest property in French football and has been linked in recent weeks with moves to Manchester United, Arsenal and Internazionale. A graceful dribbler, his ability to unlock defences and his eye for goal could make him one of the young stars of the competition.
While Domenech has remained relatively tight-lipped on the eve of the tournament, Zidane has attempted to placate the press and has called for unity.
“This tournament is not about Zidane, Makelele and Thuram’s swansong,” he told the press on Monday evening.
“It is about the squad as a whole working together and supporting each other as we try to progress.”
“It has been normal over the years for the media to attempt to cause discontent amongst the squad. The same thing happened in 1998 – it was worse than this, and I hope we get the same result.”
Reunion for SwissHaving avoided defeat to France in the two qualifying rounds, Switzerland will relish the prospect of facing France again this afternoon. The outcome of the opening game for them remains crucial, however. If South Korea defeat Togo in the early afternoon match and Switzerland are beaten by France, their match against South Korea later in the tournament will see the pressure on them rise to a very high level. There can be no doubt that manager Jakob ‘Kobi’ Kuhn will be taking more than a passing interest in the Togo vs South Korea game, despite the need to prepare for the clash with France.
Swiss football changed dramatically in the late 1980s, following the appointment of the German Uli Stielike as manager. Stielike was succeeded by another foreign boss, the Englishman Roy Hodgson, and both of these men did much to eradicate the German-speaking bias that had plagued the national team since inception. For the first time, the multi-cultural and multi-lingual realities of Swiss society were reflected in the Swiss squad, and this has resulted in a stronger domestic league and national team. No longer are French and Italian speaking players marginalised.
The result is a Swiss squad that includes players of varied decent, some of whom are known as the ‘Secondos’ – the sons of immigrant parents. The most famous of these are the centre-half Phillipe Senderos (of Spanish descent) and the injured striker Johan Vonlanthen (of Columbian descent), who became the youngest ever goalscorer at the European Championships during Euro 2004. Unfortunately for Switzerland the exciting young striker has failed to recover from a thigh injury and has not travelled to Germany.
Of those that have, the key players for Switzerland are likely to be Senderos, the midfield players Raphael Wicky and Johann Vogel, and the talented but volatile striker Alex Frei. This cluster of high class players are complemented by the rest of the squad, most of whom have extensive experience of top European leagues.
The injury to Vonlanthen means that the Kuhn is likely to begin the competition by employing a five man midfield and a lone striker, who will be Frei. Despite not being particularly quick or strong, Frei is a predatory and prolific penalty-box forward. He scores an international goal every two appearances – a record that compares favourably to most of the world’s best strikers – and a successful season with Rennes has led to speculation that he will move to the Bundesliga after the World Cup. Much is expected of him during the summer and he will be keen to atone for a miserable Euro 2004, when he received a three match ban for spitting at England’s Steven Gerrard in the group stage.
Familiarity with Henry
Senderos will partner the experienced Patrick Muller of Lyon in central defence. The 21 year-old has more experience than his age suggests, and he was a key figure in Arsenal’s progression to last season’s Champions League final. He deputised for the absent Sol Campbell during the knockout stages and was a key part of an impressive young Arsenal defence that set a Champions League record for most consecutive clean sheets. Senderos is looking forward to marking his Arsenal colleague Henry this evening, and is effusive in his praise for the French forward.
“I know how he plays inside-out and face him each day in training,” he said of Henry on Monday evening.
“It probably won’t help me much though. I am really looking forward to the challenge, but Thierry is an instinctive and unpredictable player who revels in doing the unexpected.”
Skipper Vogel is fast approaching the 90-cap mark for Switzerland and has been a permanent fixture in the team since his emergence as a teenager at the 1996 European Championships in England. An economical and industrious midfield player, he performs his job as protector of the defence with rare relish and selflessness. Several solid seasons with Dutch powerhouses PSV led to a glamorous move to AC Milan last summer, but things have not really worked out at the San Siro for the 29 year-old. His lack of playing time there means that a move away is likely this summer, but his relative freshness may not be the hindrance that many are predicting.
Wicky performs a similarly quiet but effective job on the left side of midfield for the Swiss and both he and Vogel keep the ‘Nati’ ticking over by providing the link between defence and attack. They are both important, if often inconspicuous, players and the work they do for others offsets their alarming lack of goals (they have scored a combined 3 international goals in almost 150 appearances). Wicky will be in familiar surroundings, having spent much of his career playing in the Bundesliga. He is currently at Hamburg SV and hopes to finish his careers there before becoming a ski instructor.
Kuhn is something of a legend in Swiss football, having won 62 caps as a marauding midfielder and spending eleven years coaching the Swiss youth teams before taking the reins of the senior squad in 2001. His favoured formation is usually 4-1-3-2, but the injury to Vonlanthen means that he should play a 4-5-1 system.
Confidence is high amongst the Swiss staff and coaches alike.
“The training camp and the training sessions on the pitch have made us all really excited,” said full-back Ludovic Magnin, who will be playing at his home stadium in Stuttgart this afternoon.
“Our performances in qualifying mean that we certainly don’t fear France, we know them well.”
“We need to continue on the path of development that Swiss football has taken in the last few years,” Frei told the press on Monday.
“If we continue to work hard one of these days we will beat France again. It could be tomorrow, who knows?”
While confident, Kuhn was typically more cautious in his prediction.
“It won’t be easy for us,” he concluded.
“France have some outstanding players and are the clear favourites in our group. It would be a great achievement if we took a point from the game.”
By Mark Robinson
France: Barthez; Sagnol, Thuram, Gallas, Abidal; Vieira, Makelele; Ribery, Zidane, Wiltord; Henry
Switzerland: Zuberbuehler; Magnin, Senderos, Mueller, Degen; Wicky, Vogel, Gygax, Cabanas, Barnetta; Frei
Referee: Graham Poll (England)