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Holders France on a mission in Qatar

by Anib
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Victorious at Russia 2018, Les Bleus have their sights set on retaining their title at Qatar 2022, a tough but far from impossible task.

 

  • FIFA World Cup Qatar 2022™ starts on 20 November

  • France play Australia in their opening match in Group D on 22 November

  • Can the defending champions hang on to their crown?

Crowned world champions at Russia 2018, France have a major challenge on their hands: to do what no other team has in the past 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 Kylian Mbappe, Antoine Griezmann and Ousmane Dembele. Deschamps, however, is contending with a succession of injury blows. Karim Benzema sustained a thigh problem on the eve of the tournament and will miss out altogether on Qatar. The Real Madrid striker adds to a growing number of French absentees, including the midfield pair of N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba and RB Leipzig forward Christopher Nkunku,

As well as established stars, the French have a seemingly inexhaustible supply of young talents, among them Aurelien Tchouameni), Randal Kolo Muani (Eintracht Frankfurt) and Jules Kounde (Barcelona).

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, winning 2-1 in their opening match of 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

22 November France-Australia, 22:00 local time, Al Janoub Stadiumb d’Al Wakrah 

26 November France-Denmark, 19:00 local time, Stadium 974 Doha

30 November 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.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Benjamin Pavard | Goal of the Tournament | 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™
The Hyundai Goal of the Tournament, first awarded in 2006, is determined by a poll of the general public.
 
 

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, won’t make the trip because of a knee injury, while Kante has suffered a series of problems 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 edition with a 3-4-3 that features Griezmann and Mbappe in attack. If the forward line fires and the France boss can strike the right balance in midfield, the result could be thrilling.

Key player: Kylian Mbappe

Already instrumental to French hopes, Mbappe’s importance for his team grew further with the late withdrawal of Karim Benzema due to injury. Don’t expect Mbappe to feel daunted by the increased responsibility. He went to Russia 2018 accompanied by enormous expectations as the most talked about young footballer on the planet.

Mbappe duly did conclusive justice to the hype and became France’s youngest World Cup scorer when netting the only goal of a group stage victory over Peru. Aged 19, Mbappe entered competition legend as only the second teenager, after Pele in 1958, to score twice in a World Cup match when he struck a double in France’s thrill-a-minute last-16 4-3 win over Argentina.

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
France v Argentina | Round of 16 | 2018 FIFA World Cup Russia™ | Highlights
Watch the highlights from the match between France and Argentina played at Kazan Arena, Kazan on Saturday, 30 June 2018.
 
 

Mbappe wasn’t done with emulating Pele there. A goal in the final, when France beat Croatia 4-2, made the Paris-born player the second teenager to score in a World Cup final – and first in 60 years. Somewhat inevitably, the superstar youngster was crowned FIFA World Cup Best Young Player for 2018.

It hasn’t all been plain sailing since. Mbappe missed the decisive penalty when France lost a shootout to Switzerland in the second round of last year’s UEFA EURO. But class, talent and confidence endure and Mbappe scored the winner when France defeated Spain 2-1 in the 2021 UEFA Nations League final.

The 23-year-old’s role for Qatar 2022 just became even more important. And there is every chance he won’t mind that one bit.

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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