Sicilian job for champs

PALERMO: Defending European champions France jetted into Sicily on Monday night for today's Euro 2004 qualifier against Israel knowing a fifth straight win will all but guarantee them a berth in the Finals in Portugal. 

The French have left a dreadful World Cup campaign far behind them under new coach Jacques Santini and after swamping Malta 6-0 at Lens on Saturday Les Bleus are in the mood to show their next opponents a thing or two at the Renzo Barbera stadium. 

Although this counts as a home game for the Israelis they are having to play the encounter on neutral territory because of political tension in the Middle East which has only been heightened owing to the war in Iraq. 

The Israelis' weekend draw with Cyprus is scarcely going to leave France quaking in their boots as Santini's side look to have rediscovered the form they left behind on the way to Asia last summer. 

PRECAUTION:An Italian policeman uses a bomb-sniffing dog to inspect bags prior to the start of the Israeli National football team's training session at the Velodromo Borsellino Stadium in Palermo,Sicily on Monday. Israel will play against France today in a 2004 European qualifying match deemed as a home game for Israel but played away due to security reasons. - APpic

Zinedine Zidane, who will skipper the side again in the absence of Marcel Desailly, was majestic on Saturday as were Thierry Henry, Sylvain Wiltord and, even if he missed a number of chances before taking a late one, David Trezeguet. 

Add to the mix the probable return of Patrick Vieira – if not Robert Pires – and it is easy to see why Santini's side have been installed as early favourites to retain their title next year. 

Their four qualifiers to date have brought four wins, 17 goals scored and just one conceded in an admittedly narrow win in Cyprus. 

However, Slovenia were supposed to be their only serious group rivals – and they were sent packing 5-0 at the Stade de France. 

Last month's friendly loss to the Czech Republic made some negative waves – but the manner in which the win over Malta was achieved has blown away such cobwebs, even if the coach himself is not getting carried away. 

“I'd love to make it five wins out of five – but even if we do so we won't be sure of qualifying. I'll only be happy when none of the other sides can catch us. There are no easy matches,” said the former Lyon boss who is likely to drop newcomer Benoit Pedretti of Sochaux for Vieira. 

With Henry, Trezeguet and Wiltord all on fire and Zidane right behind them Santini and his side have smoothed over the slight ruckus which emerged earlier in the season when Nicolas Anelka, cast in the role of reserve, elected not to offer his services for his country. 

Slowly but surely the side which lifted the 1998 World Cup is breaking up – but the fresh injection of talent is allowing a seamless transition under Santini on current evidence. 

Christophe Dugarry, Frank Leboeuf and Youri Djorkaeff have joined Didier Deschamps and Laurent Blanc in international retirement over the past year and Emmanuel Petit and Desailly are set to be the next to hang up their French shirts. 

But the likes of Pedretti and Desailly's and Petit's Chelsea clubmate        William Gallas, along with defender Philippe Mexes, strikers Djibril Cisse and Sidney Govou and midfielder Jerome Rothen, have all shown their class at the hub of a burgeoning new generation. 

Santini insists that he knows his own mind and will send out the team that can do the job rather than just pick names. 

“My choices are collective – it's not based on individuals,” states the man who has dispensed with three-man defence experiments for a classic 4-4-2. 

“We will look to impose our rhythm and not get carried away on the back of Saturday's win,” he added. 

The Israelis trained at the venue Monday – against a backdrop of heavy police security given the heightened state of political tension worldwide. 

A French Football Federation spokesman meanwhile denied that France had envisaged asking for a postponement. 

“France has taken no steps in that regard. We have come to Palermo to play and we are happy to,” said a Federation spokesman. – AFP 

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