France 0 Mexico 2
France: Lloris; Sagna, Gallas, Abidal, Evra; Toulalan, Diaby; Govou (Valbuena 69), Ribery, Malouda; Anelka (Gignac 46)
Mexico: Perez; Osorio, Marquez, Rodriguez; Moreno, Juarez (Hernandez 55), Torrado, Salcido; dos Santos, Franco (Blanco 62), Vela (Barrera 31)
The word “abysmal” can be overused at times, but France’s wretched performance against Mexico in Polokwane tonight was more than deserving of it. One of the flattest, most listless and lacklustre displays by one of the “bigger” teams at a World Cup for many a year saw Les Bleus defeated 2-0 by their Central American opponents and all but consigned to elimination from the tournament at the first hurdle.
Raymond Domenech’s long reign as the French Coach has certainly seen the team face some difficult times, but rarely have they appeared this disjointed and directionless during the last six years.
Set up in a nominal 4-2-3-1 with Nicolas Anelka as the lone striker and Sidney Govou, Franck Ribery and Florent Malouda forming an attacking bank of three behind him, this collection of supposedly “world class” players proceeded to show minimal discipline, a total dearth of creativity and a shocking lack of pride at representing their country.
The defending was particularly lackadaisical, William Gallas and Eric Abidal showing a total lack of awareness at centre-back, getting caught out on several occasions throughout the match by the likes of Giovanni dos Santos and Guillermo Franco who made the pair look embarrassingly off the pace and out of their depth at this level.
Of the two it was Abidal who looked the most uncomfortable, playing out of position and struggling to cope with anything approaching direct running. The Barcelona man completely failed to mark Javier Hernandez when he was introduced by Javier Aguirre on the hour, failing to track him for Mexico’s first goal when the young striker found himself clean through on goal.
The makeshift centre-half then proceeded to put in a reckless challenge on Pablo Berrera to give away the penalty which was converted by Cuauhtemoc Blanco to seal the Mexican victory and cap a thoroughly miserable night both for his team and on an individual level.
Lack of forward inspiration
The French defending may have been poor, but Domenech’s side were equally uninspiring going forward. A total lack of cohesion and communication was evident in the advanced areas of the field, with Anelka apparently having very little idea as to what his role actually was. Nominally the team’s centre-forward, the Chelsea player took it upon himself to wander aimlessly around the final third of the field, often failing to take up the positions necessary to cause the Mexican defence concern or making runs of any use to the midfielders whatsoever, finding himself isolated throughout the first 45 minutes.
In the absence of the seemingly ostracised Yoann Gourcuff, the French set-pieces were of extremely poor quality all evening, Ribery, Malouda and Anelka all guilty of wasting countless corners and free-kicks in dangerous areas. There was also a degree of positional confusion, with Ribery and Malouda taking up very similar positions from time to time, crowding the left side, getting in each others’ way and not providing much in the way of support for Anelka through the middle.
It may have been that the rumoured rifts in the camp prevented Domenech from making the required changes to his team when they went behind (the substitutes all went and stood behind one of the goals for the final 20 minutes), but when the game was crying out for Gourcuff or Thierry Henry to come on and create attacking opportunities his only move was to replace Anelka with Andre-Pierre Gignac at half-time and introduce the inexperienced Mathieu Valbuena (one of his few remaining allies?) for Govou after 70 minutes.
Managerial incompetence can be blamed for a performance of this poverty up to a point, but the players must also take a large degree of responsibility on the field, something they did not do and, consequently, paid the price for neglecting their duties as international footballers.
It would, however, be very harsh on Mexico to solely attribute tonight’s result to a shambolic French performance when El Tri produced a fine performance. Aguirre’s team set out with the same adventure and intent that we witnessed in the opening game against South Africa, lining up in their 3-4-3 with marauding wing-backs giving the team superb balance and width, starting the game vigorously and cutting through the French defences with poise and an aesthetic ease.
Giovanni dos Santos and Carlos Vela again looked sharp early on, with Hernandez and Blanco both coming off the bench to score and demonstrate the strength in depth of this gifted squad in the process. The defence also looked strong and never in danger of conceding against a blunt French forward line, the compact trio of centre-halves allowing Osorio and Salcido the freedom to get forward at will and add an extra dimension to the attack.
France may have been the “favourites” before the game kicked-off, but Mexico have shown that they can be a real force in South Africa and have exposed the many flaws Domenech’s France have been riddled with for quite some time. Tonight’s result undoubtedly marked a low point in the recent history of French football, and the team will have to start again from scratch under the leadership of incoming Coach Laurent Blanc. It could be several years before we see them challenging for major titles again.