Rapport in Russia: France/Group C

Group C: France needs big characters, not big mouths

France players enjoying a light moment during a training session at their World Cup training camp. Didier Deschamps seems to have forged a sense of unity in the France squad before Les Bleus embark on their World Cup mission.
France players enjoying a light moment during a training session at their World Cup training camp. Didier Deschamps seems to have forged a sense of unity in the France squad before Les Bleus embark on their World Cup mission.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

France have one of the strongest squads in Russia, but their hopes hinge on team unity

Didier Deschamps has learnt the hard way that football is a team sport. After all, he has witnessed plenty of French infighting at major tournaments other than 1998, when he lifted their lone piece of World Cup silverware as captain.

So even while France may boast one of the deepest squads in Russia, especially in attack, Les Bleus just cannot avoid the inevitable question of unity.

When asked if outspoken players could again affect team harmony in Russia, former defender Bixente Lizarazu, part of the 1998 team, told The Straits Times in March: "There is a very big difference between having a big character, and a big mouth. In every team, you need big characters on the field. In the 1998 team, we had a lot of big characters, but not big mouths."

The no-nonsense Deschamps is then perhaps the right man to lead his country.

The 49-year-old has, in words and deeds, underlined his belief in unity being key to winning since taking over after Euro 2012.

From the 2014 World Cup squad, he axed Samir Nasri, one of their best players who reacted badly and openly to being dropped and, from the Euro 2016 team, he omitted striker Karim Benzema, who blackmailed a team-mate over a sex tape.

 

But all that is tame by French standards.

The darkest moment came at the 2010 South Africa World Cup, where the team refused to train in support of striker Nicolas Anelka, who was sent home after a row with coach Raymond Domenech in their group defeat by Mexico.

 

Captain Patrice Evra claimed there was a traitor who leaked the bust-up and even had an altercation with fitness coach Robert Duverne. France were ultimately eliminated at the group stage.

In Euro 2012, it was deja vu amid reports of player clashes with coach Laurent Blanc and Nasri confronting a journalist, as they again exited at the group stage.

It is a far cry from the heyday when the French followed up their 1998 success at the European Championship two years later.

They were surprise finalists at the 2006 World Cup final but went on to suffer three straight group-stage exits.

A corner appeared to have been turned under Deschamps, who was also able to persuade the public to show their support after years of apathy following the 2010 disgrace.


  • France

    KEY MAN: ANTOINE GRIEZMANN

    The striker with great dribbling ability will be the main goal-getter, especially after ending the season in good form - a double in Atletico Madrid's 3-0 Europa League final triumph over Marseille. The top scorer at Euro 2016 can also play as a No. 10 to the target man, as he is versatile to either run at defenders or into spaces behind them.

    MANAGER: Didier Deschamps

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 15

    BEST RESULT: Champions (1998)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Quarter-finals



    Australia

    KEY MAN: AARON MOOY

    The midfielder was key to Huddersfield securing safety on their debut Premier League season. Terriers coach David Wagner likes to deploy him as a deep-lying playmaker or as a No. 10, which many feel is his best position. He will be the danger man if he can link up well with the country's all-time top scorer Tim Cahill.

    MANAGER: Bert van Marwijk

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 5

    BEST RESULT: Last 16 (2006)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Group stage



    Peru

    KEY MAN: JEFFERSON FARFAN

    The forward scored one and made the other in the 2-0 play-off win over New Zealand to help Peru reach their first Finals since 1982. Farfan is considered to be more of a winger and a provider of goals. He is also known to be a set-piece specialist.

    MANAGER: Ricardo Gareca

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 5

    BEST RESULT: Quarter-finals (1970)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Did not qualify



    Denmark

    KEY MAN: CHRISTIAN ERIKSEN

    Almost single-handedly leading Denmark to their fifth Finals with a hat-trick over Ireland, the influential forward plays an integral role in the middle of the park. His long-range strikes and passing ability are also a threat. He has also shown he is a game changer, winning games for Tottenham when star striker Harry Kane was injured.

    MANAGER: Age Hareide

    WORLD CUP FINALS: 5

    BEST RESULT: Quarter-finals (1998)

    2014 WORLD CUP: Did not qualify


    KEY MATCH

    France v Denmark (June 26, 10pm)

    DID YOU KNOW?

    French striker Just Fontaine has the most goals in a single World Cup, with 13 in six matches in Sweden 1958. Germany's Miroslav Klose, the all-time top scorer, has 16 in 24 matches.

A quarter-final showing at the 2014 World Cup and a runners-up finish at Euro 2016 were more befitting of the talent Les Bleus had at their disposal.

Now, all that is left may be another tightrope act that will test Deschamps' ability to optimise the attacking prowess of his team while keeping his seven forwards happy, one of his biggest joys as well as one of his headaches.

If he decides to go with a 4-3-3 formation, only three from Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Olivier Giroud, Thomas Lemar, Ousmane Dembele, Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin are likely to start.

But France are not only a top-heavy team - with Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti at the heart of their defence and a formidable midfield comprising Paul Pogba, N'Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi.

Between the posts, team captain Hugo Lloris is considered one of the best goalkeepers in the world.

It would be a surprise if France do not qualify for the last 16 with ease from a relatively weak Group C also including Australia, Denmark and Peru.

Topping the group to avoid a possible meeting with Group D's Argentina will be added motivation but, with a squad of such attacking depth, France should not have much concerns about their firepower regardless of who they face.

They just have to make sure they let their boots, not their mouths, do the talking.


Talking points

WHICH PAUL POGBA WILL TURN UP?

Didier Deschamps has concerns about Pogba's "struggles" at Manchester United, especially when the 25-year-old midfielder is required to perform his defensive duties. Playing on the left in France's 4-3-3, he scored one and made another in the 3-1 defeat of Russia in March. There is no doubt about his ability, but Pogba may be lacking a little belief.

CAN TIM CAHILL SCORE IN A FOURTH WORLD CUP?

The Socceroos' all-time top scorer (50 goals, 105 caps) is sure he can become the first man to score in four consecutive World Cups despite a lack of playing time. He has played only 63 minutes in 10 appearances since joining English Championship side Millwall in January and has not netted. Australia coach Bert van Marwijk believes he is a special player who can make a difference.

WILL PAOLO GUERRERO'S RETURN BOOST PERU'S HOPES?

Peru were initially set to play without Paolo Guerrero, their captain and record scorer with 32 goals and 86 caps after his doping ban was increased from six to 14 months. The 34-year-old tested positive for a byproduct of cocaine use but insisted it was due to drinking coca tea while unaware of its ingredients. The Court of Arbitration for Sport accepted an appeal from the World Anti-Doping Agency to up the punishment. But he has been cleared to play after the Swiss Federal Tribunal agreed to temporarily lift his suspension while it considered his appeal.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 03, 2018, with the headline 'Big characters, not big mouths'. Print Edition | Subscribe