French fear first round failure but dream of final

CAPE TOWN - World beaters or first-round flops? France have been at both ends of the tournament spectrum in recent years and go into Friday's Group A opener against Uruguay with fans still unsure which is this year's likely path.

Followers of the French national team have long given up trying to predict how they will fare having seen them gravitate wildly and though the players are sounding upbeat, there is an underlying nervousness about their Cape Town opener.

After lifting the trophy in 1998 and following up with the European Championship two years later, they suffered ignominious defeat by Senegal in their first match of the 2002 World Cup and went out in the group stage.

They bounced back to reach the World Cup final in 2006 but were abject in Euro 2008 where they managed just one point.

Having struggled to qualify for South Africa via a fortunate playoff win over Ireland France were then presented with what looked a favourable draw alongside Uruguay, South Africa and Mexico.

However, an unimpressive warm-up campaign culminating in a 1-0 defeat by China, combined with signs of upward development from their three rivals, has left the country torn about the team's prospects.

"The good thing in a way is that we are used to doing it the hard way because that's what we did in qualifying," said midfielder Jeremy Toulalan. "We know it will not be easy but we're used to that and ready for it."

Coach Raymond Domenech, who has long laboured under a cloud of fan and media doubt, has sprung something of a surprise for his farewell party by introducing an attacking 4-3-3 system in recent games.

While the new approach has succeeded in shaking off some of his side's reputation for dull play it has also exposed them defensively.

It hardly seems the ideal time to start experimenting and Domenech, with little time to hone the new tactics, picked the same outfield starters in all three friendlies in an effort to speed up the process.

The three front runners are effectively two wingers and a striker - with Nicolas Anelka being preferred to Thierry Henry - but even the players seem unconvinced.

"We can't really say we have improved during the warm-up games," said midfielder Alou Diarra. "We still need time to adapt and don't have much left."

While France can afford to leave captain and former talisman Henry on the bench, Uruguay's hopes sit squarely on the shoulders of their key front man Diego Forlan.

Fresh from another free-scoring season in Spain, where his goals won the Europa League for Atletico Madrid, Forlan has developed into a world-class striker and declared himself fully fit after bruising his thigh earlier in the week in a training collision.

Team confidence has lifted on the back of impressive warm-up wins over Switzerland and Israel and team spokesman Matias Faral said on Wednesday that their training in Kimberly had gone well.

"Everything is good, no injuries, and everything is ok with Forlan," he said.

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