Domenech: "We will know the truth after Dublin"

IT'S WHAT they call charisma. Zinedine Zidane strolls into the press room in the Stade Bollaert in Lens and, immediately, a mundane atmosphere is charged.

He is preceded, as all superstars are, by a television camera man who has mastered the art of walking backwards. Then a blizzard of flashbulbs erupts as Zidane takes his seat at the top table for the traditional captain's eve of match press conference, as France prepare to resume their World Cup Group Four campaign against the Faroe Islands here tonight.

There is a long embarrassed silence, as everyone waits for someone else to ask the first question, while Zidane, self-contained and poker-faced, stares down at the table. Eventually, the press conference grinds into action but a full 15 minutes have elapsed before the great man cracks a smile. And it's only when he's asked if he thinks the Republic of Ireland have improved since the return of Roy Keane.

"Yes," he says, "the Irish team is obviously stronger with Roy Keane back. He is somebody who can get the team to play. He brings a lot of strength and positivity to the team. And, of course, he is very experienced at the top level."

Later, when asked about the impact on the rest of the group of the return of Zidane, Makelele and Thuram, French manager Raymond Domenech will take up the same theme, saying: "A side with Roy Keane in it will not be afraid of anyone. If I was Roy Keane, I would be happy to see the French players back. It would be better to beat a side with Zidane in it than one without him.

"You can see the situation in two ways; it strengthens us or it gives an added incentive to the opposition. I expect Ireland will bring more aggression to their game and have a greater desire to prove a point. It could go either way, it is impossible to say. But we will know the truth after the game in Dublin."

Zidane makes no bones about the fact that he sees the game at Lansdowne Road as France's greatest obstacle on the road to World Cup recovery, as his side prepares to face the Faroes and Cyprus at home and the Swiss and the Irish away.

"Ireland is the most difficult of our four remaining games," he said. "But the others are hard too. Playing in Switzerland will be particularly tough for us. And we have to win all of these games. It is possible that we could qualify without doing that but in our heads winning all four is what we are aiming to do. But that is not an easy task - especially when one of the games is in Dublin."

Zidane admitted that there had been an unusually intense build-up to the friendly against the Ivory Coast in Montpelier which had marked his return to the national team.

"But it wasn't just intense for me, it was for the whole team," he stressed. "It was not like a friendly game at all but the game against the Faroes is still much more important than that."

Somewhat unconvincingly, Zidane argues that the focus is now off him and back on the team - but he has certainly done manager Domenech a favour by taking the manager out of the direct line of fire.

Although the French FA was obliged to publicly dismiss as inaccurate reports that there was a rift between the federation and the manager, a relaxed Domenech had no obvious worries on his mind when he looked ahead to tonight's game.

"I want my team to play at high-tempo, on the flanks and through the middle," he said, "and not to allow the Faroes the kind of possession that might help them to slow the match down."

However, France's failure to deliver in the campaign so far, meant Domenech wasn't about to give any hostages of fortune to a country craving a display of Zidane-inspired fantasy football.

"I will be happy with 1-0," he said. "Three points is our bottom line for this game."

The manager, who won't name his side until later today, allowed that there could be changes for the match against Ireland next Wednesday. But informed speculation suggests that the 11 which is expected to take the pitch tonight, will be very close to his starting line-up in Dublin. Against the Faroes, it is presumed that Henry will provide the spearhead in front of Zidane. On the flanks Malouda and Wiltord will supply the width, either side of Makelele and Vieira in the centre of midfield. The back four will comprise Gallas, Thuram, Boumsong and Sagnol, with Coupet in goal.

Even as the captain and manager were meeting the press, one hundred yards away fans were busy picking up tickets for tonight's game, which is expected to draw a full house in the 42,000 capacity stadium of Racing Club de Lens.

After too long in the doldrums, France expects.

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