Porto Alegre, Brazil: Former champions France should put underdogs Honduras to the sword in their World Cup Group E opener in Porto Alegre on Sunday – although their penchant for self-destruction gives the Central Americans hope of an upset.
Les Bleus go into the campaign with a happier, more settled squad under coach Didier Deschamps and will aim to banish the memories of the 2010 tournament in South Africa, when the players revolted against Raymond Domenech and flew home in disgrace after a disastrous showing.
Those with longer memories will also recall their opener as reigning champions in 2002 against Senegal, who handed them an embarrassing defeat that led to an early exit.
France were dealt a blow when veteran Frank Ribery pulled out of the squad with a back injury. The 31-year-old, though erratic in his performances for the national team, was in outstanding form for his club Bayern Munich in the past few seasons and was expected to spearhead the French challenge. Midfielder Clement Grenier has also been ruled out of action.
Morgan Schneiderlin and Remy Cabella have been drafted in their place. Deschamps, who captained the 1998 World Cup-winning side, resisted the temptation to call up Samir Nasri, whose girlfriend poured scorn on the French coach after her man was left out of the original squad.
The focus will now be on Karim Benzema, the 26-year-old Real Madrid striker, who has excelled for the Spanish club this season. Much is also expected of Paul Pogba.
France struggled to qualify for Brazil – going to the play-offs and managing to secure a 3-0 victory against Ukraine in Paris to turn around a 2-0 deficit. They are not among the favourites to win, but in a relatively easy group which also includes Switzerland and Ecuador, and they should start out on the road to the knock-out rounds against Honduras.
For Honduras, Bob Dylan`s adage "When you ain`t got nothing, you`ve got nothing to lose" might be their campaign motto. The Central Americans, whose country went to war in 1969 with neighbouring El Salvador in a dispute that came to a head over World Cup qualifiers, have not won a single game in their only two appearances in 1982 and 2010. They failed to score a goal in South Africa.
Still, they should give a decent account of themselves this time round and the positive mood was boosted by a scoreless draw against England in a friendly in Miami last week.
The Hondurans, coached by Colombian Luis Fernando Suarez, reached Brazil in some style. They topped their group in the CONCACAF preliminaries then won a famous victory away against Mexico in the Azteca stadium in the crucial qualifying game.
"We know about the other teams in Group E – I know all the players in France, Switzerland and Ecuador – but France and Switzerland don`t know much about us," said veteran midfielder Wilson Palacios.
Much will rest on Palacios` shoulders even though he spent a lot of time on the bench this season for his club side, England`s Stoke City. Emilio Izaguirre of Celtic, Scotland`s player of the year in 2011, will also have to be at his best in defence to stem the French attack.
Up front, they will rely on strikers Jerry Bengtson and Carlo Costly, hardly household names but scorers of 16 goals between them in 16 qualifiers. The latter will be hoping his name is propitious against the French.