Steed's Euro ambition

Wednesday 4 September 2002

By Ian McCulloch

After playing a starring role with the French U21's, Fulham midfielder Steed Malbranque will be looking to move up a level and make the breakthrough into the full National side this season.

His cause has not been helped by the signing of Junichi Inamoto however - the Japanese World Cup star's impressive form has meant that the young Frenchman has started the last two games on the bench.

In a quiet moment at Motspur Park, Malbranque reflected on all things European: Fulham in the UEFA Cup, his international chances - and what it was like to have a very good rival in contention for your position.

"It's always good to play in Europe," Malbranque said, "And it's been very important for the club to qualify for the UEFA Cup.

"I played in both the Champions League and the UEFA Cup in my time at Lyon. We made it through the Group Stages in the Champions League, and we reached the quarter-finals of the UEFA Cup, so I know that it can be very exciting.

"I'm not worried by having to play additional games in Europe as well as our league games. Staying in the Premiership is obviously a priority, but doing well in the UEFA Cup is also important.

We have a good squad here, and I'm sure that we'll be able to cope with both competitions."

As far as his international career goes, Malbranque will be quietly encouraged by the news that new France coach Jacques Santini has included striker Steve Marlet in the squad for Saturday's opening European Championship qualifier against Cyprus.

The French put up a feeble display in the World Cup, and Santini is obviously keen to try out some new blood.

"My goal is to work hard here at Fulham," he said, "Santini was the manager at Lyon when I was there - I didn't play that many times for him, but all I can do is keep working hard and hope that I'll be rewarded.

"It's one of my objectives this season - to try and break into the French National Team. My main ambitions though are for Fulham - I want them to do well in the UEFA Cup, and I want to qualify for Europe next season by finishing high enough in the Premiership.

"I think there is an opportunity for me to make it into the side, but I have to put in some really good performances for Fulham first. It's up to me to prove that I am good enough to be selected."

This obviously becomes more difficult if you're not a regular starter in the side. It's a very healthy position for the club to be in, and a wonderful problem for the manager having to choose between two such talented players, but what's it like for the individuals concerned? Malbranque is sanguine about having to face up to the competition.

"It's not a problem. There will always be competition for the midfield places and it's up to the manager to decide who he feels should be in the side. Having said that, I don't see any reason why we couldn't play in the same side, but again, it's the manager's decision.

"You have to accept the decision of being left on the bench. It is disappointing, but you have to show the manager that he should pick you next time. All I can do is work hard and show a good attitude.

"I have progressed a lot as a footballer since I came to Fulham - I think I am a better player now. But I've still a long way to go and I need to continue to work hard at my game. I think that I should be scoring more goals - I would like to score more than I did last season."

You can measure how good a team are by looking at their substitutes bench. It must frighten the life out of sides when they look at the Arsenal replacements for instance. To know that players of the highest calibre are going to be coming on just as your legs are beginning to tire must be absolutely demoralising.

Well, Fulham's bench is beginning to look a bit like that. How would you feel if you'd been running around all afternoon trying to keep up with either Malbranque or Inamoto, and suddenly you found you were up against the other one, fresh legs and all? Devastated I should think. But it's a nice thought for Fulham fans, and another nice thought would be to see Steed running out in the Blue shirt of France alongside Steve Marlet, and, dare I say it, Louis Saha and Alain Goma. Allez les Bleus!