Glass half empty for flat France
"It's the moment of truth," said Patrice Evra in his pre-match press conference ahead of France's opening Group A match with Uruguay. In the aftermath of the goalless draw in Cape Town, the truth is clearly that Les Bleus are clearly not that good.
That comes as little surprise to those who have seen Raymond Domenech's men since they reached the World Cup final back in 2006, but prior to kick-off in South Africa, there was still a hope that they would come good. They may still do so, but the room for optimism just got 90 minutes smaller.
There is no doubt that there was far more verve than in their sorry 1-0 defeat to China in their last warm-up match, but - having said that - if you are not ready to give your all in a World Cup game, you should not be earning your living as a footballer.
There were two alterations to the side that had surrendered so meekly to the Chinese. One was tactical with Domenech, having used an unfamiliar 4-3-3 with little success in the build-up, reverting to his habitual 4-2-3-1 in typically inexplicable fashion. The other was in terms of personnel with Abou Diaby slotting in alongside Jeremy Toulalan in front of the back four at the expense of Florent Malouda.
Similar in style and look to Patrick Vieira, the Arsenal man was one of the night's rare successes for France as he allied forward momentum with destructive industry in a fashion reminiscent of his predecessor in the Gunners' and French midfield.
Diaby aside, though, Domenech's men again looked desperately short of nous in the final third, despite Yoann Gourcuff's return to his favoured central position just behind the striker. France's 12 shots were double Uruguay's six efforts in the general direction of Hugo Lloris, but the fact that only three of Les Bleus' attempts were on target suggests there was little extra quality to go with their increased activity. Sidney Govou, out of form for the last month, offered little more than wasted energy and a wasted goalscoring opportunity on the right, and though he was barely more effective, Franck Ribéry should surely now switch flanks with Malouda starting down the left.
The Chelsea player incurred the wrath of newly-installed captain Evra and Domenech for being too aggressive in training on Thursday. Domenech and Malouda both claimed the decision to drop him from the side had nothing to do with their training ground contretemps, but regardless of the reason for his absence, the flagrant lack of creativity means Malouda must start against Mexico in Polokwane on 17 June. It is not certain he will offer more than Govou, but it would be hard for him to contribute less than his former Lyon team-mate.
Nicolas Anelka - like Govou - was fortunate to retain his place in the starting XI, and though he added more energy into his performance than he has done of late, the endeavour proved fruitless.
As the Chelsea forward dropped deeper and deeper in an attempt to get involved in the action, France were left without a spearhead. When Toulalan and Gourcuff - two midfielders hardly renowned for their goalscoring prowess - did get beyond Anelka, they were able to testify to the lack of support that the well-travelled striker has had to contend with of late. Anelka's late replacement by Thierry Henry did nothing to change the situation, though it did offer the Irish a measure of revenge as the now relegated to the bench former French captain had a penalty appeal for a blatant handball turned down.
As ever, the message from the French camp after the final whistle was positive. "Looking at the match, it's frustrating," said Domenech, who - in voicing his opinion of the end result - unwittingly echoed the thoughts of every French fan. Evra was equally blinkered, claiming: "We played really well. I don't know how they managed to hold on."
The same could be said of France, who again looked fragile with Eric Abidal and William Gallas at the heart of the defence. The pair were caught by the cameras in animated discussion prior to the start of the second half with Gallas clearly trying and failing to get his message across to his defensive partner. Evident in the build-up to the tournament, the pair's lack of complicity gave Diego Forlan a glorious opportunity to score after the break only for the ex-Manchester United forward to recapture the sort of form that made him such a firm favourite with away fans at Old Trafford.
The French spin doctors will argue that the fact they did not concede against Forlan and Luis Suarez - the most formidable front pairing the French will face in the group stages - is heartening. They will also highlight the fact they have now gone a record-equalling eight games unbeaten in World Cup finals if you include the 2006 final as a draw. Which it wasn't.
Still, the optimists - no doubt Domenech and Evra among them - will point out the 2006 tournament also started with a 0-0 draw (against Switzerland, if you're interested) and ended in the final. Those of us who see the glass half-empty, though, would like to remind them that the stalest of goalless stalemates was the prelude to a first-round exit at Euro 2008. That's the truth.