Is France a trainwreck in progress?
No matter the outcome of France's remaining matches in South Africa, the saga of "Crazy Ray" is headed for its end at this World Cup. Unfortunately for French coach Raymond Domenech, the outcome is looking more and more like the disaster long feared by French fans rather than a decent showing for the Blues.
A frustrating scoreless tie with Uruguay in their Group A opener, along with South Africa's stalemate with Mexico in the day's other match, leave all possibilities open in the group. But it also dangerously reduces the margin of error for a talented French squad yet to coalesce. The signs don't look particularly good headed into a showdown with Mexico on Thursday, unless Domenech can suddenly make the sort of hard choices for which he has never been known.
With one point in the bag in what is unsurprisingly shaping up to be a tight group, both France and Mexico have plenty riding on the match at Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane. Domenech is famous for relying on astrology to help with his team choices, so perhaps it's a sign that France will leave the bright lights and glamour of Cape Town for a more rural destination in the north.
Domenech, for one, could use some fresh air, and the chance to think a little more clearly about what went wrong in the opener. France still has the tools to make a deep run, but the coach has quite a laundry list of high-profile problems to solve if France is to avoid a group stage disaster.
In the opener, France was ceded much of the ball but never looked overly dangerous against a defense-minded Uruguayan team. Despite the possession, it had trouble figuring out what to do with the ball, resulting in yet another lackluster showing after a string of uninspiring warm-up performances. If little else, the scoreless stalemate demonstrated why the Blues have accomplished little under Domenech after making the World Cup final four years ago. The coach's often questionable tactical and personnel decisions are amplified by his players' confusion about their roles in the system.
The French have an enviable assortment of attacking weapons, but Domenech has failed miserably in his attempts to mold them into a dangerous team. In its 4-3-3, France has the look of a team that should create more trouble on the wings. But out wide is also where the coach's problems begin. Perhaps the largest conundrum Domenech faces is what to do with his star, Franck Ribery, who prefers to play on the left of the attack, where he can turn inside on his preferred right foot and go at goal. But that insistence meant talented Chelsea left winger Florent Malouda was relegated to the bench for the opener, while Sidney Govou struggled to make an impact on the right.
Despite a reported training-ground altercation with Malouda before the Uruguay match, it will now be hard for Domenech to avoid choosing him from the start against Mexico. But even with Malouda on, danger can only be created by wingers if there is a formidable threat in the middle to pick out. France had little of that Friday. When he opted for a 4-3-3, Domenech made the hard choice by benching Thierry Henry in favor of Nicolas Anelka at center forward. But against Uruguay, Anelka provided plenty of ammunition for those who doubt his motivation in the role. By wandering too far from goal too often, Anelka helped nullify the French attack when they did successfully get the ball down the flanks.
When Henry eventually came on for a late cameo, he was at least able to stick closer to the Uruguayan area, where he helped create some half chances. The iconic forward is still an unlikely choice to start against Mexico, but Henry would seem to be in line for a longer run-out, at least.
The bright spot for the French in all this was the play of central midfielders Abou Diaby and Jeremy Toulalan. Though certainly not perfect, the pair did a solid job of winning the ball and moving it forward into the attack. The duo provides a base for the French to build around for the remainder of the tournament.
As messy as things look for Domenech's side, they'll be pleased to see Mexico and their open, attacking style on the calendar next. The second match will be a welcome variation from Uruguay's approach, which featured three rugged defenders deployed along a back line with ample support from a stacked midfield, congesting the middle and making chances and free-flowing play hard to come by.
Mexico's defense will seem lightweight by comparison. El Tri fields a standard four-man back line, but played much of the second half against South Africa with three in the back as they pushed forward looking for an equalizer. Even with a full complement on the back line, Mexico's wing backs get forward aggressively, a tendency that will inevitably leave some openings for the French wingers -- if properly aligned.
Mexico, for its part, will have been watching the French disarray closely after managing a tie of its own against the hosts. El Tri's attack was far from a disappointment in the opener -- they dominated the ball for much of the game against Bafana Bafana -- but their final passes were generally lacking. Things won't get any easier against the French, who are a large step up in quality from South Africa at every position along the back line.
But for the French, it's never really been a question of quality. For some time now, the doubt hanging over Les Bleus has been whether Domenech has even the slightest idea what to do with the skill at his disposal. He's running out of time to prove that he does. In fact, the Mexico match could well be his last chance.
Brent Latham covers soccer for ESPN.com. He previously covered sports throughout Africa for Voice of America radio and now works as a soccer commentator for a national television station in Guatemala. He can be reached at email@example.com.