JOHANNESBURG (AFP) - Troubled France tackle Mexico in a crucial Group A Polokwane showdown on Thursday desperate for a win that would raise morale and open the doors to the last 16.
Les Bleus (The Blues) have reached two of the last three finals, crushing Brazil 3-0 in the 1998 Paris climax with Zinedine Zidane scoring twice and losing a penalty shootout to Italy in Berlin four years ago.
But the French looked anything but potential finalists in Cape Town last Friday as they ground out a goalless draw with 10-man Uruguay in a group completed by hosts South Africa.
It has placed coach Raymond Domenech in a position he knows only too well - under public and media pressure - and even the weather has not been kind to the man who will be replaced by former star Laurent Blanc after the World Cup.
The Western Cape where France camp at a five-star resort is notorious for delivering all four seasons within 24 hours and downpours have transformed the training pitch into an uninviting, sodden mess.
Fellow finalists Denmark refused Domenech permission to use their facilities in the area so France had to carry on in less than perfect conditions preparing for a game that could define their World Cup.
A win over Mexico and they would have one foot in the second round ahead of their final mini-league fixture against South Africa on June 22 in the central city of Bloemfontein.
But a loss could prove catastrophic as it would probably leave the 2000 European champions needing maximum points against the hosts in probably the most intimidating South African cauldron to have any hope of survival.
Outwardly at least, the French squad seem unperturbed by poor warm-up results culminating in a loss to non-qualifiers China on the island of Reunion, government criticism of the luxury resort, and the drab draw with Uruguay.
Defender Eric Abidal from Spanish champions Barcelona came straight to the point when quizzed about Polokwane: "We have to play for a win against Mexico and nothing less."
He believes there is no cause for alarm, reminding reporters how Les Bleus struggled early on in Germany only to stun hot favourites Brazil en route to the final.
France could only draw with Switzerland and South Korea and were facing a second successive humiliating first-round exit from the tournament before overcoming tournament weaklings Togo 2-0 to finish group runners-up.
"We have to step up a gear and make it out of the first round," said Abidal ahead of the second match staged at 46,000-seat Peter Mokaba Stadium, one of five purpose-built World Cup venues.
Mexico midfielder Andres Guardado, whose deep cross created the equaliser in a 1-1 draw against South Africa at Soccer City five days ago, believes the Central Americans can be the "revelations" of the tournament.
"There are always lots of surprises in football and though no one probably gives us a chance of getting through to the next round or the quarter-finals, we remain confident."
Although criticising the underachieving French has become popular, left-side midfielder Guardado from Spanish club Deportivo la Coruna is having none of it.
"How can you underestimate a team that boasts footballers like (Yoann) Gourcuff, (Franck) Ribery and (William) Gallas and reached two of the last three World Cup finals?
"The host nation tends to do well at each tournament and Uruguay are always a threat especially having arrived in South Africa following some impressive warm-up victories."
Key to Match
Franck Ribery (FRA) v Giovani dos Santos (MEX)
Most football followers know how good an attacking midfielder Ribery can be as his touchline trickery down the left flank is followed by a cut inside or cross. However, less known Turkey-based Dos Santos drove South Africa to distraction with his ball skills and speed and requires special attention.
|Coach: R. Domenech|
for N. Anelka 46'
for S. Govou 69'
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