Domenech's men are on a roll but Portugal will provide the ultimate test
MUNICH: Just as France seemingly has found its momentum, it will face one of the tournament's most formidable obstacles: Luiz Felipe Scolari.
Scolari, who managed Brazil to its record fifth title in 2002, has never lost a World Cup game. In Germany, with Portugal, he has extended his unbeaten run as a coach to 12 matches.
After eliminating Brazil to reach the semifinals, the French are bracing for the worst in Munich on Wednesday. "It will be tough. Tougher than Brazil," said defender Lilian Thuram.
Take Scolari out of the equation and France looks like a sure winner. The 1998 winner has beaten Portugal 15 times in 21 meetings, including twice in the semifinals of the European Championship.
Meanwhile, Portugal has little tournament pedigree. It hasn't advanced this far at a World Cup since 1966, and it is the only country in the semifinals never to have won the title.
Les Bleus, though, have never taken on the Portuguese team that is coached by Scolari.
Portugal, a long-shot when the competition began, has five straight wins in Germany. Under Scolari, the team has not lost in 19 games.
French riding high
Though the French are riding high after producing their best performance in years to eliminate Brazil, they know they'll have to lift their game another notch to reach the final.
"It's a semifinal, more pressure. Defensively they're stronger than Brazil and they have good players in attack. Ronaldo, Pauleta, we know, and (Luis) Figo," said winger Frank Ribery.
Pauleta, a striker with Paris Saint-Germain, led the French league with 21 goals last season the second time he has done so in four years.
Most, though, think France is the favourite.
"After you beat Brazil, all think that you will make it to the final. But unfortunately, if we lose the humility that was our strength, then things will become complicated," Thuram added.
Zinedine Zidane earned wide praise for his performance against Brazil, and Patrick Vieira was a dominant presence in midfield. Thuram and William Gallas gave goalkeeper Fabian Barthez little to do.
Thierry Henry's form has been patchy, but scored against Brazil, and Ribery's runs kept Brazil's defenders constantly busy.
Tough nut to crack
Still, the Portuguese won't give up without a fight. Just ask the Dutch or the English. Portugal held off the Netherlands 1-0 despite being reduced a man twice in the second round. It then prevailed over England in the quarterfinals. The two matches were physically draining, the latter requiring the Portuguese to play 30 more minutes than the French.
"The last two games were hugely wearing, but our motivation is high enough for us to get over it. Portugal hasn't been in such a good position for a long time," said defender Miguel.
He also reckons that he has detected a chink in France's armour. "Their weak spots are on the flanks. That's where we can get them," he said.
Scolari will have a full-strength side available with the return of Deco and Costinha from suspensions. Figo and Ronaldo are expected to shake off their injuries.
"We were confident before the England game and we are more confident now," said midfielder Hugo Viana. "But we know France will want to win the World Cup as well it will be a very exciting game," he added.
Last shot at glory
Two legends will be leading their teams onto the pitch looking for a last shot at glory. Zidane and Figo are retiring from international football after the tournament, and they want their teams to set them up for a big career finish by winning their semifinal encounter.
For Zidane, the tournament marks an end to his football career altogether.
It's a crunch game for the two former FIFA World players, who were once teammates at Real Madrid. The winner goes to Berlin for Sunday's final. The loser goes to Stuttgart to play for third place.
Both veterans go into the semifinal on top form despite their age. Zidane is 34, Figo 33. AP