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Friday, 18 June 2010

Mexican Waves Floor France

Raymond Domenech reflects on France's defeat

Clearly, Mexico were the more delighted team when the referee’s full-time whistle went at the Peter Mokaba Stadium in Polokwane last night, but deep down, most of the French side were probably just as glad that the ordeal is nearly over.

Defeat for France puts them on the brink of World Cup expulsion without the power to do anything about it. If they do somehow qualify, it will be on goal difference and scarcely deserved. The final Group A fixture against South Africa will be one for those with the stomach for a fight. On their performances in the tournament so far, the only fights the French are interested in are those within the ranks. They were as limp as a limpet shopping for Viagra on Dale Winton’s wrist.

The paucity of heart is surprising, regardless of national stereotype. One story from Argentina, on the brink of missing out on the tournament altogether, tells how Javier Zanetti rallied the troops on the field before kick off in their final qualifier, superseding a manager who – at the time – was inspiring anything but confidence. No one in the French side appeared willing to stand up in such a manner, in words or deeds. Perhaps the Domenech farce has just been rumbling on for too long – what once were French apples are looking increasingly like total onions.

The French clearly have the players to inspire though. Ribery, Malouda, Diaby, Toulalan, Clichy, Sagna, Lloris, Gallas. All play at a level above most of their World Cup Group A peers, especially the scorer of Mexico’s second, Blanco, who now plies his trade in Mexico’s second division. Most of the French are of Premier or Champions’ League pedigree.

They have always been a team that needs leading from the front. France were utterly crap in 2006 – a goalless draw with the Swiss was followed by a 1-1 draw with South Korea and Les Blues only progressed thanks to a 2-0 win over Togo in their final group game. From there, Zinedine Zidane ignited the side and single-handedly dragged them to the final. It seems natural, then to look at France’s forward line. Nicolas Anelka stands out. For being completely anonymous.

But what has become of Anelka? He is the world's second most expensive player in cumulative transfers. He has played at Arsenal and Real Madrid. He should be a focal point. When France got the ball, Ribery, Malouda and Diaby in particular, they needed a target – a centre forward. Anelka’s best position, most would say. A striker who for years has burned brightly – though sporadically – failed to deliver for his country when they needed him most. He was hauled off at half time, though his replacement was so equally unremarkable I’ve had to look up who it was (Andre-Pierre Gignac, if you didn’t notice either). All this as Thierry Henry sat on the bench, smug as a bug in a rug.

Despite sharing the limelight with Didier Drogba at Chelsea, Anelka’s goal record at Stamford Bridge isn’t bad. He scored 15 in all competitions this season and 25, securing the Premier League golden boot into the bargain, in 2008-09. Anelka’s reputation is still that of a striker who knows how to finish. However, no shots on target in 384 consecutive minutes for the French side before kick-off tell a totally different story. At least the English can be reassured that it doesn’t just happen to Emile Heskey.

It’s unfair to lump all the blame on Anelka, of course. Almost all the French were equally poor after half time and having conceded one, the likelihood was they would concede again, rather than troubling the Mexican defence. Evra barely moved as Barrero went past him and Abidal’s attempt to win the ball was as vague and non-committal as the entire French performance. The era of Laurent Blanc cannot come soon enough. Rob MacDonald

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