Crowned world champions at Russia 2018, France have a major challenge on their hands: to do what no other team has done in the last 60 years and retain the FIFA World Cup™ Trophy. Since Brazil won back-to-back titles in 1958 and 1962, the defending champions have always come up short at the following tournament.
“We’ve got a massive task in front of us,” said Guy Stephan, assistant coach to Didier Deschamps, summing up the scale of the job they face. As Benjamin Pavard told FIFA+, “France are the team that everyone wants to beat”.
Yet such is the talent at their disposal in every department that anything seems possible for the latest incarnation of Les Bleus. Led by their captain Hugo Lloris, who could become the country’s most capped player of all time in Qatar, France can count on several of the world’s best players, among them Karim Benzema, Kylian Mbappe, N’Golo Kante, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele.
As well as established stars, the French also have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of young talents, among them Aurelien Tchouameni (Real Madrid), Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig), Randal Kolo Muani (Eintracht Frankfurt), William Saliba (Arsenal) and Jules Kounde (Barcelona). All five could well figure in the 26-man squad to be revealed by Didier Deschamps on 9 November.
Winning Group D seems well within the reach of Les Tricolores. Tunisia are relatively inexperienced at this level, with only five World Cup appearances to their name prior to Qatar 2022, as opposed to Les Bleus’ 15. As for Australia, France have happy memories of facing them at Russia 2018, defeating them 2-1 in their opening match in the group phase.
Denmark ought to provide the stiffest test, having become France’s new bogey team. Without a win against the Danes in seven years, Les Bleus lost twice to them in the UEFA Nations League this year, in June and September.
France’s Group D fixtures
France-Australia, 22:00 local time, Al Janoub Stadiumb d’Al Wakrah
France-Denmark, 19:00 local time, Stadium 974 Doha
Tunisia-France, 18:00 local time, Education City Stadium, Doha
Deschamps’ approach and tactics
Appointed coach ten years ago, Didier Deschamps is as pragmatic as they come. As he has said on many occasions, he does not have a system set in stone and prefers to adapt to the attributes of his players. “Every system is good,” he told FIFA+. “What matters is how you use them.”
“Didier likes to see a lot of intensity in matches,” explained Stephan. “He’s not a coach who wants possession for possession’s sake. He also wants there to be a direct link with the attack, so transitions are important.” The Bleus coach likes his full-backs to get forward too. Benjamin Pavard’s stunning strike against Argentina at Russia 2018 was the perfect example of that.
A former midfielder, Deschamps has much to ponder in that key part of the pitch ahead of Qatar 2022. Paul Pogba, who was instrumental in the Russia 2018 triumph, is unlikely to make the trip because of a knee injury, while Kante has suffered a series of injuries himself since France’s night to remember in Moscow four years ago.
Whereas the two-time world champions’ success in Russia was founded on a 4-2-3-1 system, Deschamps is likely to start the 2022 with a 3-4-3 that features Griezmann, Mbappe and Benzema in attack. If the front three fire and the France boss can strike the right balance in midfield, the result could be thrilling.
Key player: Karim Benzema
The Real Madrid forward had a 2021/22 season to remember and was named UEFA Men’s Player of the Year as a result. Along with Mbappe, he will be France’s main man in Qatar. Since resuming his international career at UEFA EURO 2020, following an absence of five and a half years, the former Lyon striker has scored 10 goals in 16 international appearances and has shown how much of a matchwinner he is.
As he approaches his 35th birthday, KB9 has never been in better form. “He’s a world-class player,” said Kounde. “He’s got the lot, there’s not much he can’t do and he’s the linchpin of our whole game. He’s a very positive person to have around and he’s a natural leader too.”
“Karim is the best No9 in the world right now,” said Pavard. “He performs every time he plays for France and he lifts us up.”
“This World Cup is a very important tournament for him,” commented Deschamps. “The years go by and though anything can happen, this will probably be his last World Cup.”
Benzema made a fast start at his last world finals, Brazil 2014, scoring twice in a 3-0 win over Honduras in France’s opening match. He ended the tournament with three goals in five games. Eight years on, can he make an impact at Qatar 2022?
One to watch: Aurelien Tchouameni
The impressive Bleus midfielder swapped Monaco for reigning European champions Real Madrid this summer and is now lining up in the starting XI alongside Luka Modric and Toni Kroos.
In the probable absence of Pogba, and with Kante and Adrien Rabiot both having had their injury problems of late, the ex-Bordeaux player could well be one of Deschamps’ key performers at Qatar 2022.
“He always has something to offer whatever the match situation,” said Deschamps. “He really listens, he’s organised and he thinks about his football. Even though he’s not exactly the same kind of player, Pogba had all that at the same age. Aurelien is the complete player, both physically and mentally, and has what it takes to stay at the very top.”
Still only 22, Tchouameni has 14 caps to his name and looks set to be around for a long time to come.
France’s World Cup history
Les Bleus had some significant highs as the 20th century drew to a close, mixed in with the odd low. The exciting team of the 1980s reached two semi-finals in a row, at Spain 1982 and Mexico. Then came notable absences at Italy 1990 and USA 1994, followed by the glory of 1998, with a Trophy won on home soil, sparking jubilant nationwide celebrations.
There have been similar ups and downs since the turn of the millennium. After the group-phase elimination at Korea/Japan 2002 came the huge disappointment of a Final lost to Italy at Germany 2006, a match that will forever be remembered for Zinedine Zidane’s headbutt. Four years later, internal problems undermined France’s challenge in South Africa and led to a fractious first-round exit.
Deschamps’ arrival in the dugout marked a change of fortunes. First there was a fine campaign at Brazil 2014 and then a second world title at Russia 2018. The highlights of that unforgettable campaign were the thrilling 4-3 defeat of Jorge Sampaoli’s Argentina in the last 16 and the superb 4-2 win over Zlatko Dalic’s Croatia in the Final.
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