Lens, June 27: France must find a way past the man they call "the bulldog" tomorrow if they wish to avoid a miserable fortnight watching their World Cup rivals at play in their own Parisian backyard.
Assuming they can beat Paraguay and their extrovert goalkeeper Jose Luis Chilavert, the French are assured of playing all their remaining games in the towering Stade de France before overwhelming home support.
Before that, though, their chances of becoming the first host nation to win the World Cup for 20 years hinge on finding a way past the extraordinary Chilavert, a man with defiance bulging in his veins.
Scorer of over 30 goals in his career, including five for Paraguay, his record also includes a suspended three-month prison sentence and an 18-month ban from soccer for punching a stadium official in Argentina.
More relevant to French coach Aime Jacquet is the fact that he has conceded just one goal in three group games and helped turn Paraguay from 100-1 outsiders into an unexpected threat.
ButFrance have plenty going for them. They fielded a virtual reserve side against Denmark on Wednesday and still won with something to spare. No previous French World Cup team has won all three group matches and France's 9-1 goal tally was the best in qualifying. Tomorrow Jacquet will still be missing his playmaker Zinedine Zidane, banned for two matches after being sent off against Saudi Arabia. But his gamble in making eight changes in his starting line-up against Denmark, and still having the confidence to play for a win when a draw would have been enough, proved the depth of talent in the squad.
It also showed that Youri Djorkaeff could take on Zidane's role of feeding the strikers. If Jacquet has one worry as the big tests loom, it is thelack of an out-and-out goalmouth poacher.
His best candidate, Christophe Dugarry, hit form in the first match against South Africa but is doubtful for the rest of the tournament after being injured against Saudi Arabia. Even so goals have not been in short supply andParaguay face a stiff examination. The French for their part must beware Miguel Benitez who plays his club soccer with Espanyol in Spain. He scored a class goal against Nigeria and typified a growing vibrancy in the team.
Copyright © 1998 Indian Express Newspapers (Bombay) Ltd.