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Jul 3, 2006

Portugal vs. France preview

Portugal vs. France

For those seeking a relative underdog to root for at this point, Portugal is the choice. Compared with the other teams left, Portugal's lineage is decidedly threadbare. For a start, it's the only one of the four never to have won a title and this will be the first semifinal for the Portuguese since 1966.

As for France, it looks like a completely different team from the one that barely escaped elimination in the first round.

Portugal

Let me start by saying again for the benefit of certain TV analysts that this team is not the much-maligned "Golden Generation" team Portugal once expected so much from. That generation consisted of a bunch of talented yet ultimately underachieving stars the likes of Vitor Baia, Joao Pinto and Rui Costa. The only player left on the current team from that era is Luis Figo.

This is a new Portugal, one with far more mental verve than one typically associates with Portuguese teams. All credit must go to coach Luiz Felipe Scolari. As Scolari told reporters after the win against England, "We have a good team and can go even further as we advance. The spirit in this team is a warrior spirit. That is what was missing in Portuguese football."

Even so, all the warrior attributes in the world won't help this team if it continues to underperform. Portugal simply hasn't played that well yet, save for spells against Angola and the Netherlands. Part of the problem has been Scolari's inability, through no fault of his own, to field a consistent lineup. With playmaker Deco missing games because of either injury or suspension, red cards affecting the shape of his team and key injuries to players such as Cristiano Ronaldo, Scolari has yet to have his preferred lineup on the field for a sustained period.

The other major problem is the continued lack of a killer instinct in front of goal -- something that has haunted the Portuguese team for decades ever since the legendary Eusebio retired. On the evidence of Portugal's play so far, it's a problem that might prove to be the team's undoing in this tournament. Key striker Pauleta is typically inconsistent, but this has been a poor tournament for him so far and he hasn't looked as though he'll get untracked anytime soon. One problem has been a lack of service, and the other is that Scolari has been giving up on Pauleta too soon, subbing him out early in games.

Other than that, against England, the team reverted to its age-old habit of trying to get too fancy around the opposing penalty area and interweaving too many passes in search of a perfect shot opportunity. If Portugal plays like that again, it'll find it difficult to score against France.

Related Video
Portugal-France breakdown
On the plus side, Deco is back for this game and his presence will make a huge difference. Equally notable is the play of Figo lately. He clearly looks like a man willing to sacrifice all for the cause. Watching Figo track back on defense and slide to retrieve balls from going out for corners brings back visions of the player he was in his prime at Barcelona, as opposed to the player who later coasted and often looked uninterested in his final few seasons at Real Madrid.

On offense, he lacks the pace he once had to beat defenders off the dribble, but he retains his vision and guile and, combined with Deco, is Portugal's best bet to unlock the French defense. As for the other notable of Portugal's big-name trio, Cristiano Ronaldo -- he complained of soreness in his thigh after the England game and is once again a mild injury concern for the semis. Ronaldo has been a little erratic so far this tournament and seems to struggle at times with his decision making on the break. However, the fact remains that he has the sheer talent to break open any game -- the only question is whether he can harness that skill against France.

France

As a Brazilian fan, it's safe to say Brazil doesn't fear facing any country in the World Cup. After Saturday's shocking result, it's also safe to say France has had Brazil's number in recent World Cup history, having eliminated the Selecao in three of the past six World Cups.

This has been a tale of two tournaments so far for France. After an abysmal first-round showing that evoked memories of the 2002 first-round flameout, the French midfield seems to have rediscovered the fountain of youth, and its reinvigorated play has inspired the French.

The key, of course, is Zinedine Zidane, who has been superb in the last two games. The book on Zidane this past couple of seasons was that while he retained his touch and unmatched vision, he seemed to have lost that burst that enabled him in seasons past to glide effortlessly past opposing players. Yet on Saturday, there were a couple of scintillating runs where he cruised past two or three defenders at a time as if they weren't there. The only question, at this point, is how much longer can he keep this up? If Zidane continues to play as he did against Brazil, France is a very real threat to win this tournament.

Don't underestimate the cleanup work being done by defensive midfielders Claude Makelele and Patrick Vieira that allows Zidane and Franck Ribery the chance to strut their offensive arsenal.

Of almost equal importance might be Thierry Henry's mind-set. Long accused of being a chronic underachiever on the international stage, Henry finally scored and played well for France in a big game. Granted, considering the almost comical way Brazilian liability (aka defender Roberto Carlos) backpedaled away from Henry and left him wide open, Henry's goal against Brazil amounted to a gimme. However, there's no doubt a weight has been lifted off Henry's shoulders, and if he hits his full stride, there are very few defenders in the world who can contain him.

Judging by the way the French celebrated after the victory against Brazil, it also seems as if the fractured team unity that had been rumored widely seems to be temporarily healed. If there's one dark lining in the cloud, though, it continues to be coach Raymond Domenech, who continues to partake in the mystifying substitution strategy that has befallen so many coaches this tournament. Domenech's latest grievous error was to replace Henry with Louis Saha against Brazil. If you're going to insist on trying to cling to a one-goal lead, bring on a defender or defensive midfielder for Henry -- but to replace him with another striker is mind-boggling. Things worked out, but what if Brazil had scored a tying goal? France would have played all of extra time and penalties without the services of one of the world's greatest goal threats.

Prediction: Portugal beats France as Scolari outschemes Domenech.

Jen Chang is the U.S. editor for ESPNsoccernet. He can be reached at: armchairsweeper@gmail.com