Thursday 21 February 2019

French fancied for Russia reign

Form of forwards like Griezmann breeds hope

MOSCOW MISSION: France’s Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba during training ahead of their World Cup opener against Australia on Saturday.
MOSCOW MISSION: France’s Antoine Griezmann and Paul Pogba during training ahead of their World Cup opener against Australia on Saturday.

On a rainy night in Paris, the wind was whistling all its charms.

The biggest cheer of the night, when France beat Ireland 2-0 last month in the final warm-up game played in the French capital, the biggest cheer of the night was not to greet the final whistle. It wasn't to welcome the opening goal from Olivier Giroud or even the second one, from Nabil Fekir.

It was for the arrival off the bench of Antoine Griezmann - there was no roof on the Stade de France but if there had been, his introduction would have raised it. There was a welcome for the other subs like Paul Pogba (who would then be booed by the French fans on his next appearance for the national team, in Nice a few days later), but nothing like the acclaim that came Griezmann's way.

Was it a sign of solidarity for the player from the Paris crowd, aware that Griezmann's sister had been caught up in the Bataclan massacre of 2015, Maud Griezmann lucky to survive? Or just an appreciation that in the Atletico Madrid forward, the French have player who can carry them to greatness, as Platini did in '84 and Zidane did in '98?

Griezmann doesn't carry the weight of France on his shoulders but he is one of the reasons why they can dream of being champions du monde again. The French are not the outright favourites to win in Russia, as Brazil, Germany and Spain are ahead of them in the betting, but they are there in fourth place according to the bookies.

And there is a chance that 20 years on from their only success on the world stage, the French can do it again.

France won a World Cup in 1998 by using a striker, Stephane Guivarc'h, who was anything but world class. He was named (harshly) by the Daily Mail as the worst striker in Premier League history (he wasn't great but he wasn't that bad), a claim which angered Guivarc'h.

He's not bothered by that sort of stuff now, the player living life well away from the goldfish bowl of football as he has no connection with the game, his day job as a swimming pool salesman in his native Brittany.

The class of 2018 is in another world when it comes to forwards, France calling on attackers like Griezmann, Giroud, Mbappé, Dembélé, Fekir and Thauvin.

There was no clamour back home for France to patch up its (considerable) differences with Karim Benzema, who was guided to another Champions League title last month by a French-born manager, but is still so far out of the picture under Didier Deschamps that he's not considered.

Alexander Lacazette is another French forward who, Deschamps feels, the side can do without in France. They have enough attacking flair, but can they build from the back?

This reporter was working at the tournament in France when the hosts won it in 1998, and somehow managed to tip the French to win the World Cup before a ball was kicked. That France side had (some) flair up front and brilliance in the middle, Zidane and Petit about to approach their peak, but it was the French defence which stood out. Lizarazu and Thuram at full-back, two from Desailly, Blanc and Leboeuf at centre-back. This French back-four is not on their level. Even the friendly with Ireland last month gave a hint of that: their 2-0 win against a weakened Ireland XI was their only clean sheet from the last six games, this against an Ireland outfit who, bar a shot from Shaun Williams late on, didn't mount a single attack or shot on target.

In qualification they conceded goals to Bulgaria (4-1), Sweden (2-1), Luxembourg (3-1), Sweden again (a 2-1 loss) and Belarus (2-1).

Keeping a shot-shy Ireland side scoreless is one thing, dealing with the heavyweights of the world is something else.

The full-backs of Benjamin Mendy and Djibril Sidibe looked good against Ireland (but again had nothing to do), a threat going forward. But it's in central defence, with a likely partnership of Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane, where the French will be tested and maybe exposed.

France will expect to get out of Group C with little ease. Account for Australia in the first game, in Kazan on Saturday morning, and then make light of Peru and the final group game, against Denmark, should be a doddle.

After that? Win the group and they face the runners-up in Group D, possibly Croatia. Get through there and it's a possible quarter-final against either Uruguay or Spain, and then it's the semi-finals where, probably, Brazil await.

The last four and a repeat of the '98 final, only this time France have some world-class forwards instead of Guivarc'h.

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