How good are Didier Deschamps’ France?
Safely through to the knockout stage after a less than comfortable 1-0 win over Peru on Thursday (June 21), they are certainly better than the star-studded 2002 and 2010 sides that flopped so badly.
Given the struggles of Germany, Brazil and Argentina, Les Bleus may yet match the glory of the class of 1998. But don’t bet on it.
For now, Deschamps has forged a side that are markedly less than the sum of their parts.
Kylian Mbappe’s 34th-minute goal, a tap-in after a block on Olivier Giroud’s shot resulted in the ball being deflected into the former’s path, proved the difference.
But this was not an easy win. Like Australia last week, Peru refused to yield to the French and they deserved better than to bow out so early.
From the first minute, they seized the initiative and bombed forward at every opportunity.
And why should they have felt inhibited? With thousands of boisterous Peruvian supporters in the Ekaterinburg Arena, this game may as well have been played in Lima.
France, to their credit, rode out that early storm and began to create chances of their own, but they could so easily have gone behind when Paolo Guerrero blasted a point-blank shot at the legs of Hugo Lloris.
They were punished for that miss four minutes later, losing possession in their own half which resulted in Mbappe’s goal.
But France couldn’t kill off the game. Peru wouldn’t let them.
Coach Ricardo Gareca made changes at the break, adding Jefferson Farfan and assembling a rack of four attacking midfielders.
Five minutes after the break, Pedro Aquino crashed a long-range effort off the upright. Had it gone in, it would have torn a hole in the net.
More chances followed and the snail-like pace of Mbappe’s late exit from the field of play was evidence of well-founded French fears. How they struggled. There was no fluency in their passing.
Paul Pogba found it increasingly hard to exert his influence on the game. He and N’Golo Kante were forced back to help as the defence struggled under relentless pressure.
Earlier this week, Raphael Varane pointedly asked French journalists if they could be more positive about the team. Unlikely.
France are far from realising their potential and Deschamps continues to make odd decisions.
The deployment of Blaise Matuidi, a defensive midfielder, on the left wing might have allowed France to close ranks efficiently, but a squad loaded with so much talent should have better options. At least his decision to field Giroud paid some sort of dividend.
Deschamps lifted this trophy as a player in 1998, but his team haven’t shown anything yet to suggest that he can be only the third player in history to repeat the trick as a manager after Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer.
France should and must be better than this.