French escape with less-than-vintage effort

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 12 June, 1996, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 12 June, 1996, 12:00am

They are top of the toughest group in the European Championship but the French, along with Germany the only side to win a game so far, are going to have to start truly believing in themselves if they are to emulate their predecessors of 12 years ago and take the Euro 96 title. They beat old rivals Romania 1-0 at St James' Park, but the overall performance was akin to a bottle of cheap supermarket wine as opposed to a superior Bordeaux vintage.

One of the oldest sayings in football concerns playing badly and still winning and there was more relief than joy when the French players clasped each other at the end of a tension-filled 90 minutes. The young French team did not truly do themselves justice, but those vitally important three points may serve to settle them down.

The result stretched their unbeaten sequence to 24 games, but that statistic could well become a heavy burden to carry. Self-belief in international football is almost as important as goals and it may be the one ingredient missing from a fine French formation.

It certainly looked that way as players of the calibre of Youri Djorkaeff, Zinedine Zidane and even Marcel Desailly all tried to bring some semblance of balance and order to a first-half performance that was jittery and laden with mistakes.

France did play much better for spells in the second period and the maximum points gained may be the best medicine there is for jangled nerves. But both coaches, Aime Jacquet and Anghel Iordanescu, were off the bench and screaming at their players more often than they were sitting down.

It's a nerve-wracking business at the best of times, but it is a lot worse when plans are going astray and chances are not being taken. Romania's flowing, Latino-style of play is well known after USA '94 and it was much in evidence early in the game although Gheorghe Hagi, their talisman, was struggling to make a real impression. He also missed his sidekick of '94 - little Ilie Dumitrescu - although Marius Lacatus was a willing and skilled worker. France simply could not get their crisp passing game together and the goal that settled it came through a complete mistake by veteran goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea. France may wish to reflect on a less than fully satisfying display, but they can do so with the luxury of a group-topping position. The view will not look quite so good for Romania sitting at the bottom. It's a hard game.