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France’s strikers run dry ahead of World Cup

RESULTSSat Apr 10 Le Mans 2-2 Montpellier, Lorient 1-1 Rennes, Monaco 2-1 Valenciennes, Toulouse 4-0 Grenoble, Sochaux 0-2 Saint-ÃÂtienne, Lens 3-0 Boulogne, PSG 3-1 Bordeaux Sun Apr 11 Lyon 1-1 Lille, Nancy 0-1 Auxerre, Marseille 4-1 Nice

With just under two months to go before FranceâÂÂs opening World Cup match against Uruguay in Cape Town, Raymond Domenech is no doubt sat in a rickety old caravan on the French seafront. He has his headscarf on, incense burning, and the lights down low.

He is poring over his horoscopes, humming to himself, while looking up inquisitively at the glow-in-the-dark stars stuck to the caravanâÂÂs ceiling for a cosmic indication as to who should make his 23-man squad for the finals in South Africa.

After his revelations in the build-up to Euro 2008, The French Connection knows Domenech doesnâÂÂt like having a Leo in defence.

So why, we ask, did Ray get all in a tizzy when French footballâÂÂs most famous Leo, Arsenal defender William Gallas, suffered a relapse of a calf injury after being rushed back to play against Barcelona last month?

Surely, the stars were aligning in RayâÂÂs favour. But no, The French Connection was wrong. âÂÂIâÂÂm livid and p*ssed off,â he raged. âÂÂItâÂÂs outrageous and irresponsible to have played him so early after the injury. ItâÂÂs scandalous. HeâÂÂd better be fit for the World Cup.âÂÂ

"There there, William, I won't let that nasty Mr Wenger hurt you again"

Could the pressure, or God forbid the sheer scale of his unpopularity, finally be getting to the unflappable Ray? Surely not!

But last monthâÂÂs 2-0 defeat at home to Spain has yet to be swept under the carpet, partly because his players had their confidence shot to pieces and are using interviews with the press like a shrinkâÂÂs patients use his couch.

A hack from the newspaper Le Progrès practically found Lyon midfielder Jérémy Toulalan hunched up in the foetal position, saying: âÂÂAre they gone yet?âÂÂ

OK thatâÂÂs not quite true, but Toulalan was certainly emotionally scarred by the experience. âÂÂThe federation is doing nothing to help us. There was no worse choice than Spain for our confidence. I have never felt so humiliated and helpless than against Spain and Barcelona last season.âÂÂ

It wasnâÂÂt long before Nicolas Anelka, the striker formerly known as Le Sulk, reprised his old moniker and had a truly epic moan even by his own high standards.

Speaking to Orange Sport last week, Anelka said: âÂÂWe canâÂÂt continue to take lessons in football like we suffered against Spain for example. We have to work to find an answer, if not itâÂÂs just not possible, weâÂÂll be coming home after the three (first round) matches.âÂÂ

Having only just got started, Anelka grabbed the microphone and spat a few more barbed lines perhaps inspired from former France international Youri DjorkaeffâÂÂs recent foray into rap, although even the hip-hop loving French Connection concedes that such an eventuality is distinctly unlikely â I mean just listen to Vivre dans ta lumière...

âÂÂYou canâÂÂt go and lose 2-0 like that â it was truly ridiculous,â Anelka grimaced. âÂÂWe were âÂÂkilledâ on the pitch. It was a case of Division One against Division Four. ThatâÂÂs the truth â it was like professionals taking on amateurs.âÂÂ

And while itâÂÂs easy though not unjustifiable to hold Domenech completely responsible for FranceâÂÂs uninspiring performances, such a viewpoint would also be akin to blaming a pilot for a plane crash in which the engines failed, as the countryâÂÂs strikers have also been misfiring this season. 

A recent article in France Football asked: âÂÂWhere have all the French goalscorers gone?âÂÂ

A year ago, three Frenchman, André-Pierre Gignac, Guillaume Hoarau and Karim Benzema, all finished in the top four of Le ChampionnatâÂÂs scoring charts. They were hailed as a new generation of French strikers, capable of replacing Thierry Henry, David Trezeguet and Nicolas Anelka.

Now there are only three in the top 10, and Gignac and Hoarau arenâÂÂt among them, essentially because they have both had an injury-ravaged season in Ligue 1.

This in itself wouldnâÂÂt have caused Domenech too many sleepless nights had FranceâÂÂs first choice strikers been scoring freely in Spain and England. However, Henry (3), Benzema (7) and Anelka (8) have scored just 18 League goals between them this season; the former two arenâÂÂt even regulars at Barcelona and Real Madrid.

A growing reliance on foreign centre-forwards is partly to blame, according to the recently retired Steve Savidan, FranceâÂÂs favourite former dustman turned cult striker.

"Let's just start punching them in"

âÂÂThe big clubs have turned towards foreign players to reinforce their attacks,â he said.

âÂÂThis doesnâÂÂt mean to say that they are not focusing a lot on French strikers. It means that there are also very interesting merchandising prospects behind foreign players. And that these players generally possess more experience of big competitions like the Champions League.âÂÂ

A cursory glance at Ligue 1 reveals Savidan to be right. Of the 20 teams in Le Championnat, 13 have a foreigner as a top scorer. Lyon are a case in point, favouring Lisandro López to Bafétimbi Gomis for reasons pertaining to experience, how they fit in the teamâÂÂs system with the Argentine almost always favoured in a 4-2-3-1 formation, and perhaps, as Savidan points out, their marketability.

All of which gives Domenech a bit of a headache ahead of this summerâÂÂs World Cup.

And while itâÂÂs romantic to think that Ray might take Kevin Gameiro, LorientâÂÂs instinctive 22-year-old striker who is the best placed Frenchman in Ligue 1âÂÂs scoring charts or even NiceâÂÂs Loïc Rémy, the bottom line is France have uncertainty up front ahead of the finals.  

Of course, a prolific striker isnâÂÂt a pre-requisite for World Cup glory as Aimé Jacquet showed in 1998, relying on the much-derided Stéphane GuivarcâÂÂh who didnâÂÂt score a single goal.

He nevertheless played a crucial and undervalued role in the French side, holding the ball up to play in the likes of Zinedine Zidane while also acting as the teamâÂÂs first defender.

However, depending on goals from positions other than those up front is a risk and one Domenech will be looking to somehow avoid in South Africa.

"Maybe things will go better for me at Newcastle..."

The French ConnectionâÂÂs Amuse-Bouche...

1) When youâÂÂre fighting a relegation battle, everyone needs to be on the same page, especially if there is ever to be a famous Great Escape.

The players need faith, a glimmer of hope. It can come from anywhere, only in Grenoble itâÂÂs unlikely to come from the president. Asked to sum up their situation last week, Pierre Wantiez said: âÂÂDepressing. Our fate is already sealed. IâÂÂm not really a believer and I donâÂÂt know if anyone believes we will stay in Ligue 1 but I donâÂÂt.âÂÂ

Wantiez was put out of his misery on Saturday, as Toulouse inflicted a 4-0 defeat on his side, making their relegation a certainty.

2) While Lyon and Bordeaux contested the second leg of their Champions League quarter-final on Wednesday, Marseille hosted Sochaux for what Didier Deschamps termed their own Champions League match.

His side won 3-0 and went top again on Sunday night with a convincing 4-1 victory over Nice. Five consecutive victories make Marseille the favourites to win their first League title since 1992, and an impressive double.

3) PSG did Marseille a favour by recording their first win over Bordeaux for nearly two years. Michaël Ciani, the Bordeaux centre-back, was once again in the headlines for the wrong reasons.

Ciani tried to be clever on a routine clearance and ended up putting his goalkeeper Ulrich Ramé under such pressure that the veteran made a last ditch challenge and got sent off. Bordeaux lost 3-1, suffering their fourth defeat in five matches.

Laurent BlancâÂÂs side now lie fifth and have the third worst defence in Ligue 1 in 2010. Unfortunately they look likely to be dismantled in the summer.

4) Lyon booked their first ever place in the Champions League semi-finals where they will play Bayern Munich. Les Gones have a good record against the German giants, having lost just two of their six encounters since the 2000-01 season.

They also tend to do well in Germany, winning at Werder Bremen, Stuttgart, Bayer Leverkusen and Bayern all in the last nine years.

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