France, one of the pre-tournament favourites, kick off their 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign against Australia on Saturday in Kazan.
Didier Deschamps is set to give some of his youngsters to chance to dazzle on the world’s biggest stage as they look to start the tournament in confident fashion.
However, Bert van Marwijk has prepared his side hard for their fifth World Cup campaign, and will be quietly confident his side can pull off an upset.
The road to World Cup number two starts for France?
Along with Germany, Spain and Brazil, the French are seen as one of the leading candidates to lift the trophy in Moscow next month. It would be their second World Cup victory, following success on home soil 20 years ago. Meanwhile Australia are in their fourth-successive tournament, having qualified just once before 2006. That was the only tournament in which they reached the knockout stages, losing to Italy in the last-16, and they failed to pick up a single point in a difficult group in Brazil in 2014.
This will be the fifth meeting between two countries more used to facing each other in rugby than in football. France have two wins and a draw from three friendlies, including a 6-0 thrashing of the Socceroos in their last meeting five years ago. However in their one competitive clash, at the 2001 FIFA Confederations Cup in Daegu, South Korea, the then-world champions lost 1-0, with Clayton Zane the scorer.
France navigated their way through a difficult qualification group to reach the tournament, finishing ahead of Sweden and the Netherlands, the latter of whom failed to qualify. Sweden inflicted their only defeat, whilst they were held by Belarus and, astonishingly, Luxembourg. In the run-up to Russia they have prepared with friendly wins against the Republic of Ireland and Italy, but only a late Kylian Mbappé equaliser spared them from a surprise defeat against the USA last weekend.
Whilst Didier Deschamps is leading Les Bleus into a third major tournament, Australia’s Dutch manager Van Marwijk has had only four games in charge since replacing Ange Postecoglou at the end of a difficult qualifying campaign which culminated in play-off victories over Syria and Honduras. They failed to win his first two matches, but victories against the Czech Republic and Hungary stand them in reasonable stead going into this match.
Deschamps looks to give France “joie de vivre” with Mbappé and Dembélé
Having stuck with a 4-4-2 formation in recent years, Deschamps has made an uncharacteristic left-turn ahead of the tournament and looks set to play with a 4-3-1-2 diamond formation for the game against Australia.
He has given little explanation publicly about the decision – saying that he would “pick the side that I think is best suited for this match” – however Paris Saint-Germain’s Mbappé, the youngest member of the squad who is likely to be one of the main beneficiaries of the change, has said that the manager “thought it would be better for the team.” Meanwhile the French press have described the move as a “mini-revolution.”
The 19-year-old is expected to form a front three with Ousmane Dembélé and Antoine Griezmann, and he believes that they “appreciate each other” when playing together. “We put our egos on the side,” he said. “We can bring some carefreeness, some joie de vivre in a competition where pressure is always weighing on the squad.”
More than half of France’s 23-man squad has not played in a major competition before, however Deschamps says that “there’s no risk involved” as they are players who “have what it takes… to be here.” Speaking at his pre-match press conference, he also stressed that his squad “can’t afford to get stage fright” and that they “have to seize the day.”
He also spoke of Griezmann’s decision to pledge his future to Atlético Madrid in a 30-minute documentary released on Thursday night. Saying that he has “shown his loyalty” to the Spanish club, he also believes that “it frees his mind to now concentrate on this World Cup.”
Australia ready to show “guts”
Whilst his counterpart talks about seizing the moment, Van Marwijk wants his Australia side to shot “guts” when they come face-to-face in Kazan. “We know France are one of the best in the world,” he said ahead of the game, “but it is not always the best players who win prizes,” but rather, “the best team,” and he hopes that can be his side. “We have to have a lot discipline, guts, to believe in something.”
The 66-year-old, who led the Netherlands to the 2010 final and had been in charge of Saudi Arabia before a contract dispute saw his time there cut short, has changed much since arriving down under. He has looked to solidify the defence and making the team play as a tighter unit.
In preparation for the tournament, they also took part in a gruelling camp in Turkey, which midfielder Mark Milligan described as “borderline torture,” but he hasn’t missed the importance of those sessions. “We knew we needed it in the way wanted to do things and the way we want to defend and attack,” he said. “We had to be at the peak of our powers physically,” he continued.
France sweat over Sidibé; Juric fit but may not start
With Mbappé appearing to show no ill effects from a knock picked up in training during the week, Olivier Giroud, France’s second-most capped player (behind captain Hugo Lloris) and top scorer at the tournament, is set to miss out on the starting line-up as a result of Deschamps’s tactical shift, however he will undoubtedly be the go-to man if France are still looking for a goal in the last 30 minutes.
Djibril Sidibé is expected to miss the match as he struggles with a knee injury. Deschamps has snubbed the chance to replace him in the squad, which is only possible before the first game, with Benjamin Pavard, a centre-back by trade, likely to play at right-back. Samuel Umtiti is also a doubt, also due to a knee problem.
Tomi Juric’s tournament looked in doubt due to a knee injury however the striker who played his club football for Luzern in Switzerland has made the squad although he may have to settle for a place on the bench for this game, as will the talismanic Tim Cahill. He has scored in each of their last three World Cup campaigns, but a lack of football following his return to Millwall will limit his role in this tournament.
The alternatives to Juric, and Cahill, up front are Jamie Maclaren and Andrew Nabbout, with the latter likely to get the nod. Van Marwijk is also anticipated to leave out skipper Mile Jedinak, with Massimo Luongo set to be named as part of a three-man midfield alongside Tom Rogic and Aaron Mooy.
France: (4-3-1-2) Lloris; Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Tolisso, Kanté, Pogba; Griezmann; Mbappé, Dembélé.
Australia: (4-3-3) Ryan; Risdon, Milligan, Sainsbury, Behich; Mooy, Rogic, Luongo; Leckie, Nabbout, Kruse.
Quotes via ESPN, BBC, Yahoo Sports and The Guardian.