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A man alone


Full disclosure: I am not a fan of Raymond Domenech. I don't think he's a particularly nice person and I don't believe he's a particularly good coach.

And yet as I return from Paris, where I watched France defeat England 1-0 on Wednesday, I have to concede that his approach seems to work.

Domenech flies in the face of conventional wisdom. Where most managers pick their national teams based on form and age, Domenech does so on loyalty. Despite being able to call upon one of the deepest talent pools in Europe, the 36-year-old Lilian Thuram and the 35-year-old Claude Makélélé remain integral to his side.

Florent Malouda is equally a stalwart, despite enduring a very rough season at Chelsea. And it's a safe bet that, come Euro 2008, Patrick Vieira and ThierryHenry will also be among the first names on Domenech's team sheet.

Now nobody is questioning or criticizing the quality of these players. It's safe to say all five have been at or near the top in their respective positions for much of their careers. Yet it's also undeniable that, at the club level at least, they've all been slowing down, whether as a result of age or injury.

A good gauge of this is the number of league games they've started this year. Thuram has made 12 starts, Makélélé 14, Malouda 13 and Vieira seven. Indeed, of those five players, the only one to have started more than half his team's league games is Henry, whose return, in terms of goals, has been somewhat lackluster: seven in 20 starts, plus three substitute appearances.

And yet these five, all of whom are having sub-par seasons, continue to form the backbone of what is arguably the best national team in Europe and, statistically, the best nation over the past decade (reaching two World Cup finals and a European Championship final tells its own story).

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Domenech appears to be utterly impervious to what French players do for their clubs. He has "his guys" and he believes in them, blindly. That's why, after Makélélé and Thuram famously retired from the national team in '05, he went out of his way to persuade them to return. That's why he kept faith with Vieira in the World Cup after a shockingly disappointing '05-06 campaign.

They repaid him by playing phenomenally well at Germany '06 and taking France within penalty kicks of becoming world champions. Which means Domenech is either a closet genius or incredibly lucky.

It remains a mystery how players can be disappointing at the club level but excel when they pull on their country's jerseys (Northern Ireland's David Healy is the epitome of this). But it does seem that somehow Domenech manages to get the best out of his crew. As tempted as one may be to suggest that some of his favorites are somewhat past it, he's been proven right so far.

The only question is "Why?" Yes, the five aforementioned players have an incredible 440 caps between them, which means they have plenty of experience. And they're used to playing together, so much so that they've probably spent more time with each other than with their families.

But is that enough to explain away the negative effects of age, injury and flagging performances?

Domenech's critics insist he should be making more of an effort to incorporate some of France's rising stars into the side. Indeed, apart from Karim Benzema -- whose goal-scoring exploits have made him impossible to ignore -- the "next generation" has struggled to make an impact in Domenech's France.

And yet the list of potential world-class players is a long one: Jérémy Toulalan, Julien Escudé, Hatem Ben Arfa, Samir Nasri, Philippe Mexes, Jérémy Menez, Patrice Evra ... plenty of talent to choose from.

Then again, Domenech's track record shows he could care less what the pundits and the fans think. He's not there to be popular, he's there to get the job done and he does it -- for better or worse -- his way.

It's tempting -- and, perhaps, logical -- to predict that it will end in tears at Euro '08. But of course, that's what many said before the '06 World Cup. And we all know what happened then.