Group G favourites France have disappointed for the second consecutive World Cup, and the 1998 winners will be hoping to avoid the humiliation of 2002 – when they exited the finals after the group stage.
The pressure will therefore be on Les Bleus, despite their relief at having to play minnows Togo. Togo have already been eliminated and will only be playing for pride this evening in match in Cologne.
A draw will not be enough for France, who will qualify for definite only if they win tonight by two clear goals. They approach the match on the back of relentless pressure from the French media and without their suspended talismanic playmaker Zinedine Zidane. Zidane has received yellow cards in each of France’s two opening draws against South Korea and Switzerland, who meet in Hanover in the group’s other match this evening.
France coach Raymond Domenech has repeatedly stated that his entire game-plan revolves around the aging but iconic Zidane. He will now be hoping that some of his younger and more unheralded players can grasp their opportunity tonight and help the French get the comfortable victory that they require to reach the second phase.
Zidane’s absence and the need for goals will probably mean that Domenech abandons his 4-2-3-1 formation in favour of a more traditional 4-4-2. This will afford star striker Thierry Henry some much-needed support up front. Either David Trezeguet, a close personal friend of Henry, or Manchester United’s Louis Saha will be given the spot as the second striker.
With one of the strikers coming in for Zidane, other changes will also be made. Lyon forward Sylvain Wiltord may lose his place as Domenech changes his tactics, and Marseille’s Franck Ribery is his likely replacement on the right-hand side of the midfield. Left back Eric Abidal, also of Lyon, is suspended, and so Manchester United’s Mikael Silvestre is the probable deputy.
France have never met their African opponents before and their recent finals form is a major concern. Henry’s tenth-minute goal against South Korea was their first World Cup Finals goal for eight years, a run dating back to the 1998 final against Brazil. Les Bleus have been eliminated at the group stage five times – in 1930, 1954, 1966, 1978 and 2002 – but Domenech and Henry are confident that history is not set to repeat itself this evening.
“I am not being pessimistic about tomorrow’s match,” a subdued Domenech told the gathered media on Thursday.
“I am looking ahead to the future and we will be much better against Togo. You never have any excuses when you don’t qualify but, before you all accuse us, wait until we have committed a crime.”
Henry echoed his coach’s confidence.
“I’m still confident we will go through,” the Arsenal striker said.
“It should be the easiest game of the group against Togo and we are going to try and take advantage of that. We played much better against South Korea that we did against Switzerland and if we beat Togo we will be very close to qualifying. In 2002 we didn’t create anything at all and that’s why we went home. This time we are definitely better, in particular in attack.”
Togo’s German coach Otto Pfister will give World Cup debuts to some of his younger players in what will be his team’s final match before they depart from Germany. Togo have nothing to lose this evening in Cologne, and Pfister will be encouraging his team to make things as uncomfortable as possible for European giants France.
Togo’s recent form is almost as bad as France’s, though far less is expected of them. In nine matches in 2006 they have scored just four goals, and seven defeats have come in this recent run of poor form. Pfister is hoping the lack of pressure on his team can spark some improvement, with the arguments over bonus payments to the players – something that has tarnished their first finals appearance – seemingly consigned to the past. Pfister will welcome back his captain Jean-Paul Abalo back from suspension following his red card in the opening defeat to South Korea.
“We came here with 23 players and ideally I would like to give them all some experience,” the coach, who is returning to his birthplace of Cologne for the game, said.
“We know that France have to win and they will attack us from all angles. I will make several changes but I think we have the ability in this team to halt France and gain a good result before we catch our plane home.”
By Mark Robinson
France: Barthez; Sagnol, Thuram, Gallas, Silvestre; Ribery, Vieira, Makelele, Malouda; Henry, Trezeguet
Togo: Agassa; Nimbombe, Abalo, Tchangai, Agboh; Dossevi, Mamam, Aziawanou, Coubadja; Forson, Adebayor
Referee:: Jorge Larrionda (Uruguay)