France fail to capitalise

 

SOCCER/GROUP A France 0 Uruguay 0: TRY, TRY, try as you might to forget about these things, it was impossible not to be amused by the irony last night of Thierry Henry looking forlornly at the referee in Cape Town after his goal-bound shot had been stopped short of the line by the arm of Mauricio Victorino just a few minutes from time.

The defender didn’t seem to know too much about the block and so the referee was right to wave play on, but for a split second the French striker looked like a man who had been wronged before apparently thinking better of it.

Quite rightly, as Roy Keane says we all should, he picked himself up and got on with things; which is much the same approach the French generally will have to adopt after a disappointing first game at this World Cup.

Raymond Domenech said afterwards he was pleased with the performance, but disappointed his men had not taken their chances. Pushed on the referee’s key decisions, though, and particularly the penalty appeal, he observed: “We have perhaps six more matches to play at this tournament so of course I say that all of the referees are good. And tonight the referee did not blow his whistle so it was not a penalty.”

A fair enough response, even if six does seem rather on the optimistic side. It would be hard to imagine on the evidence of this game that either of these two sides are going to bring a whole lot to the party.

Diego Forlan looked the best player on the pitch, although, as Manchester United fans will be pleased to hear, his finishing let him down, while France probably looked fractionally the better team without ever looking like pressing their superiority home.

After all of the excitement in Johannesburg, in short, both teams seemed determined to play their part in calming things down again.

A goal certainly seemed to be a possibility after Uruguayan substitute Nicolas Lodeiro had made his mark on the competition by becoming the first player to be sent off; the midfielder picking up two bookings – the first for dissent, the second for a nasty challenge on Bacary Sagna – within just 18 minutes of coming on in the second half.

Lifting themselves to take advantage of the situation, though, was to prove beyond the French and a couple of half chances aside, Henry’s shot, which Fernando Muslera might well have saved anyway, was as close as the 2006 finalists came to nicking it late on.

In fact, it had all gone downhill after the national anthems which, if these things decided World Cups, would probably be good enough to keep both of these countries here all the way to the final on July 11th. The Marseillaise is a timeless cracker and while the Uruguayan equivalent, which doesn’t seem to have a name, doesn’t half go on a bit, it’s still a great old musical romp which seemed to set the whole night up nicely.

Sadly, the rest was to be a a letdown. Apart from a ridiculous challenge by Jeremy Toulalan on Alvaro Pereira, it was almost impossible to detect measurable levels of passion from either side and perhaps the biggest cheer of the night was for the arrival of Henry, who replaced a sluggish Nicolas Anelka 18 minutes from time.

By that point the banner hanging in the stand proclaiming: “Henry, le Cheat!” was long gone, with the two Irishmen who’d brought it along – Niall Mallon and Niall Keogh – threatened with a night in a South African slammer if they didn’t hand it over.

And in the end the fading Barcelona player made less of an impact here than he had at the Stade de France back in November. True, he looked more lively than the Chelsea striker had but the South American back four looked more assured of themselves by that late stage of the game, the string of minor early mishaps almost forgotten, at least until the sending off.

The worst of their early scrapes had come just seven minutes in when Franck Ribery had been a little lucky to emerge with the ball after a challenge by Victorino. The Bayern Munich winger skipped confidently on into the area before slipping a low angled cross towards Sidney Govou in the six yard box, but the finish was poor and the ball raced well wide of the right-hand post.

Any idea that this might have marked the start of a dominant French performance was quickly dispelled, though, with Domenech’s men rarely showing any urgency. There were certainly a couple of half chances but better ones at the other end where Forlan forced one fine save from Hugo Lloris then missed badly after being set up well by Luis Suarez from a throw-in on the left.

With William Gallas looking vulnerable throughout, the Uruguayans looked almost as likely to make a breakthrough as their opponents but with Suarez already replaced, they settled for shutting up shop in the wake of the dismissal.

“Of course we would have preferred to win,” observed Domenech afterwards, “but the only difference between the four sides after the first round of matches is that the others have scored a goal.

“Overall, it was a good performance collectively by us this evening. We couldn’t take our chances which is disappointing, of course, but we stopped Uruguay from playing their game and that was not easy.”