World Cup Preview: Uruguay vs. France

In turmoil, les Bleus face a mysterious Uruguayan side


What: Uruguay vs. France, Group A, match 1

When: Friday, 2:30 pm ET

Where: Cape Town

TV: ESPN, Univision

Both Uruguay and France think of themselves as favorites to get out of the group, perhaps even to come out on top. The pair are World Cup winners, and faced with South Africa and Mexico, two teams with little history of seriously challenge for international hardware, they must feel confident of advancing.

The Uruguayans squeezed into the World Cup, finishing 5th in South American qualifying and needing to beat Costa Rica in a playoff series to book their berth. The French, of course, have been in chaos since the moment they qualified thanks to Thierry Henry’s handball against Ireland last fall. Now they must put the past behind them. Whichever can do that best should come out on top.

Uruguay

The Charrúas have been very quiet in their preparations for the Cup. They played only two friendlies since qualifying last fall, beating Switzerland in March and topping Israel last month. Then they had delays in arriving in South Africa.

But they are feeling confident heading into their opener. “We will arrive to the game against France in our best form,” center back Diego Lugano told the media this week. “We are calm because we have worked well in training and we are ready.”

Against France, the key will be coach Oscar Tabarez’s 3-4-1-2 formation against France’s dynamic attacking trio of Franck Ribery, Nicolas Anelka, and Yoann Gourcuff. With defender Mauricio Victorino getting the nod over Juventus’ rising star Martín Cáceres, Tabarez is thinking defense first, hoping to spring prolific striker Diego Forlan and his running partner, Luis Suarez, on the counterattack.

France

Coach Raymond Domenech is, according to many French laypeople, the most hated man in France. Yet he has kept his job, which means he is under incredible pressure to perform. Much of the mentality of the team—and the fans—will be determined by the outcome of the first game.

The pre-World Cup controversies—Henry’s handball, sex scandals, the decision to leave Karim Benzema off the side, last week’s friendly loss to China—have faded as the business at hand as grown closer. Ribery’s ability to change a game with one run, one pass, one move, give les Bleus a chance in any match. He will look to link up with Anelka and Gourcuff, going forward with speed, searching out the spaces that will open behind Uruguay’s three-man backline.

Key Players

Uruguay: Diego Forlan. Two-time leading scorer in Spain, the crafty Atletico Madrid striker can snag goals at will. He had seven goals in qualifying. He scored once in 2002, the last time Uruguay qualified for the World Cup.

France: Yoann Gourcuff. The young midfielder has come into his own in recent years, leading Bordeaux to the Ligue 1 championship in 2009 and then into the quarterfinals of the Champions League this year. This tournament could be his global coming-out party.

Final Analysis

Despite some name players and their pedigree, Uruguay are an unknown quantity at this point, which could work to their advantage against the powerful, if distracted, French side. Don’t be surprised if les Bleus stumble out of the blocks.