France must answer case for the defence
The World Cup could mark the end of one era and the start of another for an ageing France side that hopes to emulate Brazil and Italy by retaining the trophy.
Although they appear stronger overall than four years ago, especially in attack, the French may have some concerns about their defence in South Korea and Japan.
In 1998, the team coached by coach Aime Jacquet lifted the World Cup on home soil thanks in large part to an outstanding back line that conceded just two goals -- one of which was a penalty -- in seven matches.
With Fabien Barthez as goalkeeper, Laurent Blanc and Marcel Desailly in the centre and Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu on the flanks, few sides were capable of penetrating their rearguard.
But since Blanc called time on his international career, things have changed.
Olympique Marseille's Frank Leboeuf, who played in the 1998 final, has failed to prove he is the ideal replacement.
Even if the players are now much more experienced and seem to have retained much of their pace, the French defence is getting old, with an average age above 32.
For the first time in a decade, France suffered three defeats in a single year in 2001, losing to Spain, Australia and Chile.
To some extent, France are victims of their own success. As holders they did not have to qualify for South Korea and Japan 2002.
"It's always tough to keep your motivation at the top when you have only friendly matches to play," said captain Marcel Desailly, now 33.
Desailly's Chelsea team mate, Emmanuel Petit, added: "Sometimes we find it hard to focus on a match.
"But we are professionals. We know what we have to do. We must not get confused and mistaken. Nobody really minds losing a friendly. What we must be is ready when the World Cup starts."
The 2002 tournament could well be the last major tournament for many of the established players, who will be well into their 30s by the time of Euro 2004 -- providing they qualify for the finals in Portugal.
Leboeuf, Desailly, Lizarazu, Petit, Alain Boghossian, Youri Djorkaeff and even Lizarazu and Barthez could be contemplating retirement.
"We are not too old," insisted Petit. "We are experienced. We have been professionals for 10 or 12 years and every one of us knows himself perfectly well. It can be a great advantage in an international event."
Coach Roger Lemerre, who took over from Jacquet in 1998, has tried to prepare for the future, picking younger players such as Manchester United's Mickael Silvestre, Philippe Christanval of Barcelona, Bayern Munich right-back Willy Sagnol and Nantes goalkeeper Mickael Landreau.
During the 2001 Confederations Cup and in the friendly internationals, these players proved reliable, even if they still lack experience and for them, the 2002 World Cup finals will be the acid test.
In attack, though, France are spoilt for choice.
During Euro 2000, France scored 13 goals in six games and always found the net at least twice in each match.
Arsenal's Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet of Juventus and Liverpool striker Nicolas Anelka have proved themselves world-class performers.
Media reports, though, have said that Lemerre, who is expected to announce his squad on May 18, has already told Anelka that he will not be picked.
Brilliant young AJ Auxerre striker Djibril Cisse has been knocking on the door and Lemerre has invited him to a training camp this week.
Cisse, 20, is still very raw but Lemerre will remember that Jacquet did not hesitate in launching both Henry and Trezeguet on to the world stage at the same age in 1998.
Over the last two years France have confirmed that they can score goals at any time in a match.
They can recover from two goals down to win, just as they did in beating Slovenia 3-2 in April 2000. Or they can simply crush their opponents, as they did highly-rated Portugal in a 4-0 demolition at the Stade de France last year.
France's midfield is just as impressive as their attack.
Arsenal's Patrick Vieira and Sylvain Wiltord, former Arsenal midfielder Petit, Boghossian and Djorkaeff -- to name but a few -- are all players of proven quality.
Injury has already ruled out another Arsenal player, Robert Pires, and Christian Karembeu of Olympiakos.
The jewel in the France side remains playmaker Zinedine Zidane, the world's most expensive player and the potential star of the 2002 tournament.
Scorer of two goals in the 1998 final, Real Madrid's mesmerising ball wizard turns 29 next month, when he should be at the peak of his goal-creating powers.
Assuming they top group A as expected after matches against Senegal, Uruguay and Denmark, France could face either England or Argentina in a difficult second round encounter.
By then it will be clear if Lemerre's ageing rearguard is still up to the job.
But if attack is indeed the best form of defence, France are well-placed to go all the way once again.