Highs are often followed by lows, but rarely is the contrast so drastic as it was yesterday. The carnival atmosphere surrounding the hosts’ opening Group A fixture was followed by a desperate encounter between two teams that are capable of much more.
For Uruguay much of the blame falls on Luis Suarez’s shoulders. Perhaps the 23-year-old, at his first world cup, felt the eyes of the world upon him; the Ajax captain scored 49 goals for his club last season and has been linked with Barcelona and Manchester United. But he was awful here, caught offside constantly and when he did stay onside, failing to find any kind of meaningful link with Diego Forlan. The Atletico Madrid striker did his best here, full of decent touches and some intelligent movement, but could not win the match on his own.
Uruguay’s qualification for the tournament was the very definition of average – six wins, six draws, six losses, eventually qualifying through the playoffs for the third time in succession – and so not much was expected of them here. The same cannot be said for France.
Much has been made in the build-up to the tournament of coach Raymond Domenech’s quirky personality – the man dropped Robert Pires because he was a Scorpio, and proposed to his girlfriend in a post-match interview after Italy knocked France out of Euro 2008 – but his coaching remains dismal. With a starting eleven as good as any in the tournament at his disposal, his French side should have swept Uruguay aside with a minimum of fuss.
As it turned out, somewhat ironically for a team recently caught up in a sex scandal, France wouldn’t have scored in a brothel last night. Playing 4-5-1 with Nicolas Anelka up front and Franck Ribery and Sidney Govou either side might have worked had the two supporting midfielders, Yoann Gourcuff and Abou Diaby, done their bit and pushed up in support.
Diaby showed flashes of great skill but seemed reluctant to push too far forward. Gourcuff is capable of brilliance but was found wanting here, his delivery from setpieces especially disappointing, a series of deep free-kicks all sailing straight into the keeper’s arms. All too often Anelka would drop deep to pick up the ball, as he has done so often and so successfully for Chelsea. But France have no Drogba and with no support pushing up from midfield there was rarely a French player in the Uruguayan area.
France had the better of the first half, their best chance coming as early as the sixth minute. Good work from Diaby sent Ribery clear down the left and his low cross across the six yard box just needed a touch, but Govou could not provide it. Gourcuff would come close midway through the half, forcing an athletic save from Muslera with a well-struck free kick.
The BBC commentary team spent much of the game chastising Domenech for leaving out Thierry Henry and Florent Malouda. Henry’s inclusion in this team had been a subject of much debate in the run up to the game: his reputation demanding his selection, his form suggesting otherwise. Malouda’s exclusion was baffling considering his superb form for Chelsea, and seems to stem from a training ground bust-up. Both would eventually get their chances – Henry on for Anelka, Malouda on for Gourcuff – but Domenech should have used their inclusion to change a system which clearly wasn’t working.
By this point Uruguay had all but given up on the very notion of scoring, and seemed happy enough for France to plod around in front of them. Henry spent much of his time on the pitch pointing and shouting, even finding the time to make an irony-free appeal for a penalty for handball. Standing purposefully over a dead ball 25 yards out, after Abou Diaby had beaten the same two men three times before getting fouled, a hush fell over the stadium only for Henry to meekly sidefoot into the wall. France are going to have to do an awful lot better if they are to get out of this group, which suddenly looks a lot tougher than it did yesterday morning.