KNYSNA, South Africa (AP) — Despite France coach Raymond Domenech's perpetually upbeat attitude, confidence is running low among his players heading to the World Cup.
With just a handful of days remaining until Friday's opener against Uruguay, and after two unconvincing warmup matches, the French need to improve — and fast. Otherwise, they have no chance of repeating their surprise performance four years ago, when Domenech's team confounded the critics to reach the World Cup final.
France was beaten by China 1-0 Friday after being outplayed in a 1-1 draw against Tunisia. Before that, the French beat Costa Rica 2-1, coming from behind to win with a late goal in their first warmup game. None of those opponents qualified for the tournament.
"Of course we're disappointed," France midfielder Yoann Gourcuff said. "A defeat is never pleasant, especially a few days from the start of the tournament."
France also fell a goal behind against Tunisia, and missed numerous chances against both Costa Rica and China, highlighting problems on defense and attack.
Only the new midfield trio of Jeremy Toulalan, Gourcuff and Florent Malouda has shown any real consistency.
Although France played some good attacking soccer at times against Costa Rica and China, the finishing was poor.
"We need to be more clinical, more ruthless," Toulalan said.
Chelsea striker Nicolas Anelka failed to score in the warmups, and defensive errors were the root of all three conceded goals: Eric Abidal failing to pick up the striker's run against Costa Rica; William Gallas not reacting quickly enough for Tunisia's early goal; and substitute Anthony Reveillere at fault for the free kick which led to China's goal.
"We're a bit down because we would have liked things to have gone differently before heading to South Africa. But we can't let our heads drop," France midfielder Mathieu Valbuena said. "They're only friendly games, even though we didn't go about them in the best possible way."
The French media, which wanted Domenech fired after the European Championship two years ago when the team went out in the first round, have been scathing and sarcastic.
Sports daily L'Equipe mockingly called the loss to China "a giant step backward" and decreed a "state of alert," while daily Le Parisien echoed what French fans fear by saying "If nothing changes, things will be complicated in South Africa."
Relations between reporters and players are tense, with Anelka, winger Sidney Govou and goalkeeper Hugo Lloris refusing to talk after the China game.
The only voice of optimism, as usual, comes from Domenech, who claims France is "progressing," despite overwhelming evidence that things are stagnating on almost every front.
"I saw a lot of interesting things: the way we played, the movement, the approach play," Domenech said after the China match. "I thought we were much better than the last time, and even better than the time before that. We're progressing."
Including the two World Cup playoff matches against Ireland in November, France has scored only five goals in the last five games, and — with the exception of Valbuena's strike against Costa Rica — all of them have had an element of controversy or luck.
Anelka's goal at Ireland was deflected. Gallas' decisive and disputed goal in the return leg against Ireland came courtesy of Thierry Henry's hand ball. The equalizer against Costa Rica was a deflected cross by Franck Ribery. Gallas' goal against Tunisia came off the top of his shoulder as he rose to meet Gourcuff's free kick.
While the media ridiculed France for losing to China, Domenech defiantly saw things his own way.
"Look at the number of chances we created. We're still asking ourselves how we didn't score," Domenech said. "But it's also the game where we created the most chances. That's the positive side of things. We just lacked the finishing touch."
While Domenech's statement is somewhat true, he also said exactly the same thing before Euro 2008. France went out without winning any of its three games, scoring once and conceding six goals.
Lying in wait on Friday are Uruguay's prolific strikers. Luis Suarez had six hat tricks for Ajax this season, and Diego Forlan scored both goals in Atletico Madrid's Europa League win over Fulham. They scored more than 70 goals at club level in all competitions: 49 for Suarez, 28 for Forlan.
Domenech must figure out a way for his rickety defense to stop them, with Mexico's slick attack and host South Africa's hugely motivated team to follow in Group A.
He must also find a cure for an attack that promises much but delivers little.