SPORT

Leading contenders: France

Its recent defeat against Belgium notwithstanding, France would still be the team to beat in Asia's first World Cup. And as one looks ahead, it is hard to foresee any team coming close to pulling up an upset if the French recapture the defensive solidity that won them the World Cup for the first time in 1998, and the devastating fluidity they showed in offence while lifting the European championship in 2000 and the FIFA Confederations Cup in 2001 with such ease.

The French believe they are as good or even better than they were four years ago, when they seized the opportunity to defeat a frail-looking Brazil at home in resounding fashion. Indeed, it is difficult to detect any weaknesses in this side, though it remains a fact that no European team has ever won the World Cup on foreign soil till date. This apart, no team other than Italy (1934 and 1938) and Brazil (1958 and 1962) has ever won football's prestigious event twice in a row.

The French would be keen to set these records straight and prove once again why they have remained the best football nation in the world through the last four years. The last holder to be given a direct entry into the World Cup, France, however, would be starting its campaign with an obvious disadvantage — with the great Zinedine Zidane unlikely to play in the opening match.

But it is unlikely to stop it from making swift progress into the second round after the initial Group A league commitments. In the second round, however, the French could be tested either by England or Argentina and in the quarterfinals by Brazil, thirsting to seek revenge for its humiliating defeat in the 1998 final. Beyond that, it could be either England or Argentina depending upon which of these two sides emerge on top of Group F.

Certainly a tough draw but one look at the squad managed by Roger Lemerre is enough to understand why `Les Bleus' kick-off the tournament as the firm favourites. And Lemerre himself is unfazed by the hurdles the team faces. ``The opening game is always tough but we have shown our capabilities over the past few years. We feel like a winning team and we are aspiring to even greater heights with our fresh talent.''

The strong part of the French team is the friendship between the players and the level of respect they have for each other. In fact, it is hard to recall any side, other than this French squad, ever having made an attempt to defend their title with almost the same nucleus that had helped them to win the Holy Grail for the first time. And just as in 1998, the French would have once again the peerless Zidane working his sorcery in the middle alongside Emmanuel Petit and Laurent Robert to provide the required thrust to the attack spearheaded by Thierry Henry and David Trezeguet.

In goal, it should be Fabien Barthez and in defence the first-choices could well be Lilian Thuram, Marc Desailly, Bixente Lizarazu and one among Willy Sagnol, Frank Leboeuf and Philippe Chistanaval. Besides Zidane, it would be Patrick Vieira who would determine the pace of the French attack, inspiring his teammates to trouble the rival defences even as he stays behind to provide support to his own backline.

A solid defence, an inspirational midfield and an efficient attack — the French seem to have it all to defend their title. — A. Vinod

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