France kicked off their Euro 96 campaign by riding a strong defensive performance to a 1-0 victory over a livewire Romanian team.
The two teams were more than familiar with each other, as both came through Qualifying Group 1, with Romania topping the group, one point ahead of the French.
France drew 0-0 with Romania in Saint-Etienne during qualifying, but did produce a 3-1 away win in Bucharest. Zinedine Zidane, Youri Djorkaeff and Christian Karembeu were the French scorers in that game, and all three featured in this game. Zidane played in central midfield, while Karembeu and Djourkaeff played either side of target man forward Christophe Dugarry in a 4-3-3.
Espanyol forward Florin Raducioiu paced the Romanians with 5 goals in qualification, and he speared the attack in a 4-3-3 here with wingers Marius Lacatus and Dorinel Munteanu either side. Captain Gheorghe Hagi made the All Star team from the prior USA 94 World Cup, and took his place in central midfield here, alongside Gheorghe Popescu and Ioan Lupescu.
Romania started fast and were presented with a chance in the opening minute when right winger Lacatus was fouled br French left back Eric Di Meco. The chance came to nothing when Hagi curled the resulting free kick straight into the hands of French goalkeeper Bernard Lama. The dynamic Lacatus was probing again in the early stages, and was set up in shooting position after neat interplay but fired his shot over the bar.
The early pressure continued, and another wide free kick was awarded to Romania when Lacatus was fouled by Marcel Desailly. This time, Hagi’s inswinging cross was punched clear by Lama.
Lacatus was the star of the game’s opening stages and his impact on the game continued in the 20th minute as Di Meco was booked for yet another foul on the Steaua Bucharest winger. Hagi shot on goal from the free kick but was denied by a diving save from Lama.
France’s first attempt of note came in the 22nd minute when a Di Meco cross bounced around and resulted in a vicious shot from Djorkaeff that stung the palms of Romania goalkeeper Bogdan Stelea.
The deadlock was broken in the 25th minute when France took the lead somewhat against the run of play. Djorkaeff floated into a wide right position and hung over a cross that found Dugarry at the edge of the penalty area. Dugarry rose above center back Gheorghe Mihali and looped a header over Stelea, who had come for the cross but ended up caught in no man’s land.
Romania continued to threaten and some neat buildup play in the 31st minute saw them switch the point of attack before feeding Hagi, who drove forward before firing a shot wide of the target.
France attacked down the right hand side in the 38th minute and neat skill from Djorkaeff set up captain Didier Deschamps who fired a thunderous shot wide of the target.
Television graphics in the 41st minute displayed that Romania had 57% of first half possession, and they will have felt unfortunate to be going into the interval behind. They had one more chance to level matters before the break when they were awarded an indirect free kick just inside the penalty area. The ball was worked to Lupescu but his show was well wide of the target.
At half time, Romania coach Anghel Iordanescu brought on striker Viorel Moldovan in place of the largely ineffective Raducioiu. France coach Aime Jacquet tinkered with his lineup by moving Djorkaeff into a more central position, shifting Vincent Guerin onto the left wing.
France started the stronger in the second half and center back Mihali was booked in the 49th minute for fouling Dugarry out wide. Djorkaeff took the free kick and looked to rekindle the connection from the opening goal, but his cross was headed wide by Dugarry.
Another Djorkaeff free kick won France a corner in the 56th minute, but his corner was shot wide by Karembeu at the front post.
Coach Iordanescu made an eyebrow raising substitution in the 56th minute when the impressive Lacatus was withdrawn and replaced by Adrian Ilie.
Romania won an attacking free kick in the 66th minute when right back Dan Petrescu joined the attack well and was hauled down wide of the penalty area. Hagi took the free kick but his powerful shot was straight into the arms of Lama.
France coach Jacquet made a double substitution as the game entered its final quarter when he brought on Bixente Lizarazu and Patrice Loko on, in place of Di Meco and goal scorer Dugarry. Pacey forward Loko made an immediate impact by picking up the ball and driving past two Romanian defenders before firing wide from the edge of the penalty area.
Romania were presented with a chance to equalize when a poor Lama clearance was intercepted and forward Moldovan played in on goal. The chance was foiled by a strong tackle from Laurent Blanc, who quickly launched a counter attack. Midfielder Zidane picked up the ball in transition and played in Djorkaeff who was brought down by Tibor Selymes on the edge of the area. Zidane lifted the free kick up and over the wall but his shot was saved by Stelea.
Both teams made their final substitutions as the game entered the final 10 minutes. Jacquet brought on Alain Roche for Zidane while Iordanescu made his final roll of the dice by bringing on Iulian Filipescu for Petrescu.
The Romanians pushed for an equaliser and Moldovan made space for himself 20 yards out before firing over the bar. Another chance came in the 90th minute when Munteanu rolled Lilian Thuram to cross and Ilie got in front of Lama to deflect an effort wide. German referee Hellmut Krug spotted a deliberate handball from Ilie in his desperation to tie the game, and the striker received a yellow card.
The final chance for Romania to level the scores came in injury time when Hagi was fouled by Thuram. Popescu stepped up to take the free kick, but his effort was fired high into the crowd and the clock ticked down on a campaign opening victory for the French.
The French backline conceded only 2 goals in their entire qualifying campaign, and laid down their marker here as one of the better defensive units in the tournament. Powerful right back Thuram also showed himself to be a threat on the attacking end. Striker Loko impressed in his cameo off the bench, but netting the decisive goal was likely enough for Dugarry to retain his place leading the attack for the upcoming game with Spain.
Romania played well for long spells, and will have been disappointed to leave empty handed from this game. They now faced a pressure game against Bulgaria, with both sides going in looking to spark their campaigns with a first win. Hagi would be a key figure for Romania in a game that saw him and Stoichkov go toe to toe in an exciting battle of mercurial playmakers.
25’ FRA Christophe Dugarry (Youri Djorkaeff) 1-0
MAN OF THE MATCH
LM Youri Djorkaeff (France) – Deployed as a winger in the first half, and in a more central role after the break, Djorkaeff was a key figure in this victory for France. Finding space all over the field, he pulled strings throughout the game and provided the assist for Dugarry’s decisive goal.
3: LM Youri Djorkaeff – Man of the Match.
2: RD Lilian Thuram – A powerful presence, Thuram proved a strong force in defense and his pace also threatened Romania at the other end of the field when he surged forward in attack.
1: CM Zinedine Zidane – Skilled and graceful, Zidane showed impressive ability in tights spaces, passed well and also drove forward in attack to be a key threat for FRance.
3: CM Gheorghe Hagi – The left footed playmaker was the pivot of most possession for his team and was a consistent threat from set plays.
2: RM Marius Lacatus – Surprisingly subbed off during the second half, Lacatus drove well at the French defense and drew fouls for a number of attacking set plays.
1: LM Dorinel Munteanu – Munteanu persisted and showed flashes of quality in a tough matchup against Thuram, as Romania huffed and puffed for an equalizer.