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September 3, 2008
By Paul Marshall
(Archive)

You can't teach an old dog new tricks, they say, and France coach Raymond Domenech - a pit-bull terrier of a defender in his playing days - is hardly the sort to roll over and invite you to tickle his tummy. Still, that is what the French FA asked him to do - metaphorically, if not literally - as they gave Domenech a number of provisos to keep his job, despite leading the nation to nothing more than humiliation and universal derision at Euro 2008.

GettyImagesDomenech addresses his squad ahead of the qualifiers.

As misguided as that belief was, it wasn't half as misguided as their conviction that Domenech - whose side scored a paltry single goal in their three Euro group games - could steer the nation safely to South Africa. With Romania and Serbia in a testing Group 7 - which also includes potential banana skins of Austria and Lithuania, though not the Faroe Islands - les Bleus can ill afford the lukewarm performances in qualifying that were the prelude to this summer's debacle.

This weekend's trip to Vienna before they play host to the Serbs in Paris next Wednesday will show just how much - or more likely 'how little' - Domenech took to heart what he was told at the July meeting when it was decided he would avoid joining the dole queues. At a tense gathering of the French FA's top brass in the shadow of the Eiffel Tower, Domenech's lack of communication, as well as that of his players, with both media and fans was criticised, while the former under-21 coach himself explained his side would now develop a more attacking, ambitious style of football after FA president Jean-Pierre Escalettes had pleaded, 'Please, never again another France versus Romania.'

The mind-numbing stodginess of that goalless draw in Zurich certainly wasn't apparent last month when a kamikaze French side scraped a 3-2 win in a friendly in Sweden. 'Who doesn't prefer a match like that against Sweden over that against Romania?' said Domenech recently, accompanied by eyebrows being raised collectively amongst the French football press. 'We always say that it's better to play and win matches like that and from time to time get hammered.' If the notoriously defensive-minded Domenech - the man who brought on Jean-Alain Boumsong for Samir Nasri when his side were reduced to ten men needing victory against Italy in June - is telling the truth, it would be the biggest conversion since Britain went decimal. The acid test will come when points - and not only pride - are in the balance, especially in October's encounter in Romania.

It seems unlikely, however, that Domenech's outlook has altered, especially as the man himself declared boldly to l'Equipe in early August, 'To imagine that I'm going to change fundamentally would be utopian and dishonest. Do you think I'm going to be a good little boy who accepts everything and says 'yes' to everyone? I'm not going to deny my true self.'

Despite that outburst, however, there appears to have been a rethink on Domenech's part towards certain aspects of his job, namely picking the best players available - something he conspicuously failed to do at Euro 2008.

His love-hate, but mostly hate, relationship with Philippe Mexès meant the Roma defender was one of the less-than-magnificent seven to be told they wouldn't be going to Austria and Switzerland last summer. Generally acknowledged as the best central defender of his generation and the natural successor to Lilian Thuram, the Roma defender's personality clash with Domenech - a legacy of his time in charge of the under-21s - means the prodigiously talented 26-year-old has just nine caps to his name. Mexès is now in the squad for the qualifiers as he was for the Sweden friendly, though how much that is down to the scales falling from Domenech's eyes rather than Thuram's self-imposed retirement is known only by the man himself.

The same can be said of Arsenal right-back Bacary Sagna, who missed out on being made a fool of in the summer, but has been given a chance to right that wrong during this weekend's trip into central Europe. The injury-enforced absences of Willy Sagnol - who Domenech insisted on taking to Euro 2008 despite him being unfit - and François Clerc mean that the thinking behind that decision will only be revealed when they are both back on the pitch.

In the manner of a professional cyclist, Domenech has injected some entirely fresh blood with Bordeaux playmaker Yoann Gourcuff - read Zidane-replacement in positional if not talent terms - and Rennes full-back Rod Fanni - read Pascal Chimbonda 2006 World Cup wildcard - both given the chance to enjoy the unlimited delights of the Ernst-Happel Stadion dugout. Hatem ben Arfa would also have had one of the best seats in the house in Vienna had 'a groin' not meant he will now only have one of the best seats in his own house.

However, Domenech apparently still cannot rid himself of his desire to hang onto the past, despite admitting that had proved a disastrous strategy at Euro 2008. Although he retired from international football after the tournament, Claude Makelele received notice he could be called up prior to the squad announcement for the opening qualifiers. Domenech insists the new Paris Saint Germain captain remains in his plans, despite a host of ready-made long-term replacements, such as Jeremy Toulalan, or Diarras Lassana and Alou, both willing and able. The error-plagued Eric Abidal, who is suspended for the Austria match after his red card against Italy in June, is an unfathomable inclusion, though this time it has not been at the expense of Arsenal left-back Gäel Clichy.

Where Domenech does appear to have genuinely broken the mould is in his selection of just two goalkeepers in the youthful pairing of Steve Mandanda and Hugo Lloris, ignoring Sebastien Frey, Mickäel Landreau and Euro 2008 clanger-dropper and number one Gregory Coupet.

GettyImagesGoalkeeper Coupet has been dropped in favour of younger blood.

Though Coupet's omission is understandable having just started the Spanish season at new club Atletico Madrid, Landreau's fine start to the campaign with PSG probably should have earned him a recall, while Frey threw a very public hissy fit, declaring his international career - all two caps of it - on hold as long as Big Dom remains in charge of seating on the team bus.

Though they only have two caps between them, Mandanda is the reason Marseille currently sit top of Ligue Un, while Lloris' displays have helped Lyon into second and he is yet to concede a goal - stats which give more than a veneer of credence to Domenech's choice which can justifiably be classed 'brave' as Coupet, regardless of his current state of form, would have been the safer if not necessarily the best bet.

There is a sense that regardless of what he does to appease his bosses Domenech is just a pair of bad results away from the sack. Gérard Houllier - recently appointed to the influential role of Directeur Technique Nationale, and whose support was key in Monsieur Raymond remaining in charge - lurks in the background apparently with designs on a second stint in charge of the national side, while the French FA's revulsion at paying Domenech 3million euros in compensation should they sack him was reportedly the main reason they kept him on. The cheque would most likely have to be written, though, should France's first three qualifiers not bring virtually a maximum haul of points.

When Domenech kept his job, despite overwhelming public pressure to replace him with Didier Deschamps, FFF president Escalettes said they had taken 'the most brave decision'. True enough. By next week, we may already know whether it was the right one.