France hopes to stir things up

With Zinedine Zidane retired, France must find a new way to spark its offence against World Cup winner Italy.

updated: February 25, 2007 11:35 IST
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With Zinedine Zidane retired, France must find a new way to spark its offence against World Cup winner Italy. The game, of course, is a rematch of the final two months ago, won by Italy on penalties. In his final game, Zidane was sent off on a red card for head-butting Italian defender Marco Materazzi, and the Italian received a two-match ban for provoking Zidane. Look for strikers Thierry Henry and Louis Saha, and wingers Franck Ribery and Florent Malouda to try troubling Italy on Wednesday at the Stade de France in their European Championship qualifier. Malouda and Saha scored in Saturday's 3-0 victory over Georgia in Group B, and Ribery assisted on both goals. "We like to move about all the time," Henry said of the quartet. "We can't keep still. It's important not to have a stereotypical way of playing." France vs. Italy overshadows Wednesday's other 20 European qualifiers, although the matchup between Slovakia and the Czech Republic comes close. The two nations were one until they split 13 years ago. In Russia, Guus Hiddink faces Croatia in his second game as Russia's coach. He opened with a 1-0 win over Latvia. Elsewhere, it's: Finland vs Portugal, Netherlands vs Belarus, Poland vs Serbia, San Marino vs Germany and Northern Ireland vs Spain. Against Italy, Henry will win his 88th cap, and he's just five goals short or equaling Michel Platini's record of 41 for France. Platini took 72 games from midfield to accumulate his total. Henry is scoreless in his last seven games for club and country. "That is the least of my worries," he said. "I will repeat it over and over again. It doesn't bother me as long as my team is winning." Italy look rusty Italy struggled to a 1-1 draw with Lithuania on Saturday, making the Wednesday game critical. "From now on we have to get it into our heads that whoever plays us, being world champions, is going to be extremely competitive and we're going to have to do the same," Gennaro Gattuso said. "We have a difficult group." Gattuso expects a hostile crowd in Paris. "Luckily, the fans don't play," he said. "And we're used to this - we played Germany during the World Cup." Portugal and Benfica midfielder Armando Petit summed up the problem for many players. Tired from the World Cup and playing a tough club schedule, many now begin qualifying games for the 2008 European Championship. "None of the (Portuguese) players is at their best level physically because most of them missed part of preseason training due to the World Cup," he said. "We'll have to make up for that by giving our all and making a sacrifice for the national team." Germany, third in the World Cup at home, should hammer San Marino. The Germans needed a deflected Lukas Podolski shot to beat Ireland 1-0 on Saturday. The tiny enclave surrounded by Italy promises few problems. "Blue sky improves the mood," Germany coach Joachim Loew said. "A victory is simply obligatory." The Netherlands, which eked out a 1-0 victory on Saturday over Luxembourg, needs an impressive win to keep the pressure off coach Marco van Basten. Van Basten has been picking young players and has overlooked veterans like Ruud van Nistelrooy, Mark van Bommel, Clarence Seedorf and Edgar Davids. "We are not building a younger team for the sake of building a younger team. We are changing things to achieve," Van Basten said. England, disappointing in the World Cup, plays at Macedonia. It's the first test match for new coach Steve McClaren following a 4-0 exhibition win over Greece and a 5-0 mauling of Andorra on Saturday in European qualifying. England will be without suspended striker Wayne Rooney and is likely to start the same forward pair of Peter Crouch and Jermain Defoe. Both scored twice in the win over Andorra. "We have to be focused and accept that we face a tougher challenge," McClaren. "But obviously confidence is high after our wins against Greece and Andorra." (AP)