x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

French strike a divided pose

Despite beleaguered coach Raymond Domenech claiming otherwise, France's result on Saturday versus the Faroe Islands should be a formality.

France's big-name strikers Thierry Henry, left, and Karim Benzema have misfired in qualifying.
France's big-name strikers Thierry Henry, left, and Karim Benzema have misfired in qualifying.

Despite beleaguered coach Raymond Domenech claiming otherwise, France's result on Saturday versus the Faroe Islands should be a formality against an island nation whose entire population could occupy two seats each and still not fill the Stade de France. The Faroes are bottom of Group 7 in the European section of World Cup qualifying, but were only beaten 1-0 at home in their capital Torshaven by the stumbling French. They always punch above their diminutive weight, avoiding the thrashings meted out to far larger "small" nations.

It is at the top end of the group where the real interest lies. Group favourites France are second, four points behind Serbia with two games to play. France meet the Faroes and then Austria at home on Wednesday, with anything less than six points calamitous, but there is a sense that the damage has already been inflicted by drawing three and losing one of their eight group games so far. Serbia, competing for a first time in this competition after separating from Montenegro last year, greet their struggling neighbours Romania in Belgrade and then travel to a poor Lithuania side needing just two points from two games. The Serbs would progress even if the French managed the same points, such is their superior goal difference because of France's poor goalscoring form, leaving the 1998 world champions to go through a risky play-off game.

Not even the humorous headlines generated by the release of a love song dedicated to him by a renowned French adult actress has shifted the pressure on Domenech, who is part pitied, part seen as a figure of fun. France have scored just 10 goals from eight qualifying games and have failed to score more than once in their last five qualifiers. Domenech claimed that Group 7 "would not be straightforward, with tricky away games" before a ball had been kicked, but with a squad packed with world-class talent, Les Bleus were still clear favourites.

France have been failed by their forwards. Domenech has picked Nicolas Anelka (Chelsea), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Andre-Pierre Gignac (Toulouse), Sidney Govou (Lyon) and Thierry Henry (Barcelona) for the next two games. Benzema and Gignac are just 20, yet the former plays for Real Madrid and has already passed the 20-cap mark. His class and that of his strike partners can not be doubted, yet all is not well within the French ranks.

Henry, France's all time leading scorer with 49 goals, has been a public critic of his coach, most recently for the way in which Chelsea's Florent Malouda found out that he was not even among the substitutes for the recent qualif-ier against Romania. He walked in the dressing room and saw there was no shirt for him. The strong feeling that Domenech has lost the support of key players refuses to go away, a feeling borne out by poor results, despite subsequent statements from Henry and Domenech to say that all was well in France's camp.

France's draw with Romania is chiefly attributed to the baffling system which Domenech uses by often playing just one striker and three attacking midfielders behind. Henry is not a fan of the system, yet Domenech said: "With 'Titi' [Henry], we can use him anywhere, except as a right wing, where even he doesn't feel comfortable." Henry much prefers the central role. He accepts that he seldom plays there for Barcelona, but expects it as France's most decorated player. It is revealing that France's top scorer in the qualifiers is not even an established striker but Franck Ribery.

Not that this has been the only finger pointed. Defender Patrice Evra has even blamed the fans and lamented the "unbelievable" attitude of sections of the French public following the abuse from the stands which greeted their poor performance, even going as far as to say: "You get the impression that sometimes it would be better if we told the public to stay at home and not come and support the players.

"We have already spoken about it among the players. You come on to the pitch and get whistled at already. You have to ask the public, maybe they don't like football." Even if France win their next two games, a play-off seems likely, but do not bank on the divided team reaching South Africa just yet. @Email:amitten@thenational.ae