No fear for Milan man

 

Youri Djorkaeff, the Inter Milan midfield player, was a man with an additional burden as France made ready yesterday for a potentially dangerous mission with Croatia.

Even as Aime Jacquet was supervising their final training session, a story in a local paper accused Djorkaeff of opting out of the dramatic penalty shoot-out against Italy in the Stade de France last Friday.

The implication was that he lacked the nerve to handle one of the biggest challenges of his career. And the hurt showed.

"It's true that I refused to take one of the kicks, but it had nothing to do with a fear of facing the Italian goalkeeper, Gianluca Pagliuca," he said. "Pagliuca had more reason to fear me than I him. I didn't volunteer for one of the kicks purely because of tiredness. I had run all over the pitch for two hours and I considered that there were other, fresher players to do the job.

"To take a penalty in those circumstances, you need to be 100 per cent focussed, not worrying whether you're too tired to strike the ball properly. Those were the thoughts which went through my mind at the end of extra time and in the end I think I made the correct decision."

Djorkaeff, a man who has served France well in the majority of his 43 international appearances, ought have no problems in reconciling his performances here with the impressive record he took into the championship.

When Aime Jacquet found himself in the unenviable position of having to find an alternative playmaker in the absence of the suspended Zinedine Zidane for two games, he had no hesitation in withdrawing Djorkaeff from other duties and assigning him Zidane's role. The response in each instance was positive.

"There is nobody in our team who can link up defence and attack as well as Djorkaeff," said Italian manager Cesare Maldini. "He gave us some of our biggest problems last Friday and I think he is the player Croatia must subdue to survive now."

It is a measure of his adaptability that on Zidane's return the Inter Milan player reverted with similar success to the job he had earlier done, playing just off the front. And while Jacquet declines to be specific about his strategy, the likelihood is that he will again be deployed just behind the front runner this evening.

Over the weekend, there were fears that Jacquet might have to go to battle without one of his most trusted generals, but that grim scenario was apparently over-stated.

"I took a knock on my hip which was painful for two days, but now after resting it there is no problem," he said. "Playing so many big games in a short space of time is a problem for everybody, but now that the end is in sight we have found new energy."

Asked to comment on his performances to date, Djorkaeff said: "That is for other people to judge, but as far as I am concerned I am living this World Cup as I had planned. Certainly, I would like to have scored more than once, but the important thing is that France keeps winning.

"Nobody has to remind us that we missed some good chances against both Paraguay and Italy. But Paraguay set out to defend at all costs and depend on getting through on penalties. The Italian game was more open, but it was still very hard to penetrate their defence.

"None of us expect things to be much easier against Croatia. But once we get a break, I think we'll put the record right and from my own point of view, I am certain that I will score again before the competition ends."