Ribery influence on France sky rockets

PARIS - If France are still in contention for the 2010 World Cup, they owe it to Franck Ribery whose influence has been growing rapidly with Les Bleus this season.

France laboured to consecutive 1-0 wins against Lithuania in Group Seven over the last five days, with the Bayern Munich midfielder on target in both.

Ribery, who turns 26 on Tuesday, found the back of the net with a stunning 20-metre drive in Kaunas last Saturday and on Wednesday at the Stade de France, he tapped in a fine cross by Andre-Pierre Gignac.

"An extraordinary goal. We convert our most difficult chance, but you know, that's Franck," Thierry Henry told reporters last Saturday in Kaunas.

Coach Raymond Domenech, usually reluctant to comment on individual performances, added: "Listen. Ribery has a tremendous influence on Bayern's game, he has a tremendous influence with the national team.

"Actually, he has a tremendous influence as soon as he puts on a football shirt," Domenech told reporters.

POTENTIAL DECIDER

Under Ribery's influence, France have moved to second in Group Seven, two points behind Serbia, whom they will meet in Belgrade in September in a potential make-or-break qualifier.

Ribery was first called up by Domenech to travel to Germany for the 2006 World Cup, and scored the equaliser in a 3-1 victory over Spain in the last 16.

Since then, his influence has been growing, and off the pitch his repeated schoolboy jokes and good mood help to dispel anxiety in the dressing room.

Last year, a French TV channel showed him scaring passers-by in Germany while posing as his own dummy in a shop and a German video showed him crashing a Bayern Munich bus in Dubai during a training camp in January.

"We must have fun," Ribery said before the Lithuania games.

On the pitch, he has found the perfect partner to have fun with in Bordeaux playmaker Yoann Gourcuff. They clearly have chemistry, with Gourcuff nicely setting up Ribery in Kaunas.

"It's working between us. I yelled at him 'Yoann' and he just put the ball where I was expecting it," said Ribery, who could replace Henry in French fans' hearts.

Ribery earned more praise from defender Patrice Evra, who said the midfielder was a key element in France's World Cup bid.

"To win a World Cup, you need a team but to win a match, you need talent," said Evra when asked about Ribery's performances.