France may be the reigning world champions, with deep reserves of talent to call upon in Qatar, but their performances in 2022 have revealed some vulnerability. After an unbeaten 2021 which culminated in a Nations League final victory over Spain, their latest Nations League campaign was underwhelming, winning only one game out of six in a relatively gentle group containing Croatia, Austria and Denmark.
Denmark and France now meet again in Group D of this World Cup, a group which also features Australia and Tunisia. It is one France should win, but they will have a target on their backs and there are pitfalls: the Danes will have no fear after their impressive 2-0 win over the French in Copenhagen last month, while Australia and Tunisia squeezed through play- off matches and will feel they have a free swing at this tournament with nothing to lose.
The French team has evolved from the side that lifted the trophy in Moscow four years ago, and is now without the injured Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, while Karim Benzema has also been ruled out. The big challenge for Didier Deschamps is finding the right balance between hardened World Cup winners and fresh blood. The young Real Madrid duo Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni started together in the recent defeat by Denmark, and Deschamps must decide whether to keep faith or turn to more experience – he has hinted at the latter. “It’s a young French side,” the manager commented after the game, “where the majority of players don’t have experience at the very highest level … there’s no need to worry, having the players with international experience back will do us good.”
Deschamps has been experimenting with a back three which has utilized his array of centre-back options: young defenders like Jules Kounde, Dayot Upamecano and William Saliba would walk into most international teams but are battling for gametime with experienced world champions Presnel Kimpembe and Varane. The back-three experiment has not been entirely successful and there remains doubt over exactly how France will set up, and what their best team is right now.
The only certainty is that the French team will be built around their superstar forward, Mbappe. If Deschamps can put in place the right blocks to support him, France will have a chance of defending their crown Qatar.
Here is everything you need to know:
Group fixtures (all times GMT)
Tuesday 22 November: France vs Australia – 19:00
Saturday 26 November: France vs Denmark – 16:00
Wednesday 30 November: Tunisia vs France – 15:00
Confirmed 25-man squad
Goalkeepers: Alphonse Areola (West Ham), Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Steve Mandanda (Rennes)
Defenders: Axel Disasi (Monaco)*, Lucas Hernandez (Bayern Munich), Theo Hernandez (AC Milan), Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool), Jules Kounde (Barcelona), Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich), William Saliba (Arsenal), Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich), Raphael Varane (Manchester United)
Midfielders: Eduardo Camavinga (Real Madrid), Youssouf Fofana (Monaco), Matteo Guendouzi (Marseille), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Aurelien Tchouameni (Real Madrid), Jordan Veretout (Marseille)
Forwards: Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Olivier Giroud (AC Milan), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Kylian Mbappe (Paris St-Germain). Marcus Thuram (Borussia Monchengladbach), Randal Kolo Muani (Eintracht Frankfurt)**
*replaced Presnel Kimpembe (Paris St-Germain), **replaced Christopher Nkunku (Leipzig)
Ones to watch
Star – Kylian Mbappe: Mbappe was a young, exciting livewire in the French team four years ago but now he is the undisputed star. If Deschamps can find the right mix of players around him – Mbappe has been widely reported as preferring to play off a No9 Olivier Giroud than to be the focal point himself – then his talent will do the rest.
Breakout talent – Aurelien Tchouameni: It is hard to call someone bought by Real Madrid for €80m a potential ‘breakout talent’ – he has already very much broken out at club level – but Tchouameni is certainly an outstanding young player who can show his strengths to the world in his first World Cup. Tchouameni has a similar profile to the injured Kante with a knack for interceptions, tackles and being in the right place, and he could well be called upon to fill Kante’s shoes. The 22-year-old has been in and around the French team for a couple of years now and will be trusted by Deschamps to perform when the opportunity arises.
11/2 (second favorites behind Brazil)
France can win this World Cup if everything clicks, and they will surely go deep into the knockout rounds. It is a squad bursting with quality that will be too good for most. But results over the past 12 months show they are not quite the force they were, and Deschamps’ tinkering of systems and personnel suggests he is still trying to find the right formula for this evolving French side. Expect them to fall just short of retaining their crown. Knocked out in the semi-finals.