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   June 8, 2002 | 1105 IST



France get the blues

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France, favourites Argentina in trouble

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World champions France and Argentina, the team widely tipped to succeed them, have made hugely unconvincing starts to the World Cup finals, leaving both teams in danger of elimination in the first round.

Argentina's 1-0 defeat by England on Friday left them third in group F behind Sweden and England with only Nigeria beneath them. Sweden's 2-1 win over Nigeria earlier on Friday put them top of the group and dumped the African side out of the tournament.

In the final group games next Wednesday, Sweden play Argentina and England face the easier-looking task of a game against the Nigerians.

Both Sweden and England have four points, ahead of Argentina on three and Nigeria none. Sweden, with a goal tally of 3-2, top the group on goals scored, with England (2-1) second.

If Sweden defeat Argentina in Miyagi next Wednesday, the South Americans are out, even if England lose to Nigeria in Osaka.

It is a daunting prospect for Argentina, who waltzed through the South American qualifying group losing just one of their 18 matches, scoring 42 goals in the process and finishing 10 points clear of second-placed Ecuador.

France, meanwhile, are doing even worse in group A than Argentina in group F.

The world champions began the defence of their title with a shock 1-0 defeat to Senegal in the tournament's opening match and were held to a 0-0 draw by Uruguay on Thursday.

With Denmark having beaten Uruguay 2-1 in their opener and drawing 1-1 with Senegal, France go into the last of their first round games needing a two-goal win over the Danes to be sure of progressing.

Denmark (3-2) top the group from Senegal (2-1), with both sides on four points. Uruguay (1-2) and France (0-1) have one point each. The group could end with all four teams finishing with four points as Senegal play Uruguay and France face Denmark next Tuesday.


France have started the World Cup without their talisman and best player Zinedine Zidane, injured in a friendly against South Korea two weeks ago. France have missed his influence badly, and although they played two games without him in the 1998 finals, those matches were in France and they had already built a momentum fuelled by millions of home fans.

Thierry Henry This time it is different. Not only have France been without Zidane, they have also been without anyone who can score a goal and they did themselves no favours against Uruguay when Thierry Henry was sent off for a bad, late tackle, on Marcelo Romero.

Coach Roger Lemerre's side are also four years older than in 1998 and many of the same players are still in the side. The entire back line of Lilian Thuram, Marcel Desailly, Frank Leboeuf and Bixente Lizarazu, as well as goalkeeper Fabien Barthez, played in both the 1998 World Cup final and the opening match against Senegal.

The French, however, are still confident of advancing.

"There is still hope," said Lemerre after the Uruguay match. "We need to improve against the Danes and beat them -- and that is still possible."

Argentina also need their skipper and talisman Juan Sebastian Veron to regain his fitness and form in the next few days to prove just why Manchester United paid Lazio 28 million pounds ($40.86 million) for him last July.

Veron had a poor second half of the season with United and a poor opening half against England on Friday. One aimless cross-field pass straight into touch summed up his lethargic performance, and whether the heavy bandaging he sported after the game was as much for his pride as his strained tendon, it was hard to say.

Like France, Argentina cannot be written off just yet and both could suddenly find their form and go all the way through the tournament. But on the evidence they have both shown so far, they need to improve hugely.

They are both reaching the point of no return.

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