| Fabien Barthez and Zinedine Zidane after France’s 3-1 win over
Spain in Hanover on Tuesday. (AP)
The old wily fox used all its cunning to wear down and devour a spirited prey. Spain had raised visions of a never-before campaign with an impressive all-win record in the group league stage. Even on Tuesday night, they looked good in parts and led till 40 minutes before being outwitted by Zidane & Co. What was the secret of this French turnaround, a team that looked lifeless and dispirited in the three league games'
If you had a look at the picture of Zidane and Henry embracing each other, youíll know the answer. The two top stars, not known for their camaraderie on field, were savouring the teamís success like teenagers. And this, after Zidane scored a memorable goal to round off the tally and Henry went out empty-handed two minutes before the final whistle. There was no clash of egos, no hard feelings.
Coach Domenech, at the receiving end of loads of criticism, had finally managed to convince a team of talented individuals to forget everything petty and put their heads together for the cause of Les Bleus.
Spain may have been on a high, but they donít have the quality France boast of. Starting from Barthez, Sagnol, Thuram, Gallas, to the likes of Makelele, Zidane, Vieira and Henry, the Frenchmen had heavy ammunition in their armoury. Add the young legs of Ribery, and you have a very potent combination ' provided, of course, the big guns are in the mood to fire.
Well, all of them did play a role for the first time in the tournament and, overnight, France looked like a cohesive unit. Barthez turned the clock back with some superb anticipations. The defence was efficient, the threat of Torres was well handled. Zidane, despite being a couple of steps slower, still delivered some telling passes, curled in a wicked free-kick (which set up the second goal) and even scored a magical goal.
The way Zidane cut in from the left, rounded off Puyol and buried the ball past Casillas would embarrass many a leading striker in this competition. That goal came in stoppage time, 10 minutes after Vieira had nodded home a Zidane free-kick from the back post. The ball went in off a defenderís leg, reflecting the terror the Frenchmen had created in the Spanish citadel in the final 10 minutes or so.
It was Vieira who drove the French machine on Tuesday. He contributed in defence, spoiled many a Spanish build-up in midfield and moved up to look for goals as well. He had an able commander in Ribery who used his speed to rattle the defence.
Henry had another poor match as key striker. He came through more as a provider and produced a clever piece of Ďdummyí to fool the opposition and set up the equaliser.
Ribery, playing a 1-2 with Vieira, timed his run to perfection and coolly slotted home after turning past Casillas. But that would have come to nought if Henry, standing in an off-side position on the left channel, hadnít checked himself when Vieira released Ribery down the middle.
The Spaniards had successfully laid the off-side trap five-six times in the opening half, but this time, Henry was far too clever and it was his chance to catch the rivals napping. That one incident summed up the trend of the match: the French played clever, tactical football to out-think the Spanish.
Itís Brazil up next for France, a potentially classic match-up. Brazil will be out to wipe off those dark Parisian memories of 1998 and I think they will succeed. If Robinho can start, Brazil will have a definite edge. I think France have played their best match, they wonít be able to repeat the Tuesday show.