We continue our Group C team previews with 1998 World Cup winners France, who will be making their 15th appearance at the finals this summer.
With the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane at his disposal, Didier Deschamps is tasked with turning one of international football’s most talented squads into a tournament-winning team.
Their group opponents, while no pushovers, should in theory be no obstacle in progression to the knockout stages: all three rivals had to come through play-offs to secure their passage to Russia.
Australia are first up for France in Kazan on Saturday May 16, before an encounter with Peru in Ekaterinburg on Thursday May 21. The French end their group campaign with a fixture against Denmark in Moscow on Tuesday May 26.
Road to Qualification
A group containing the Netherlands, Sweden and Bulgaria looked like one of the toughest draws in Europe, but it was embarrassing results against two minnows that threatened to derail France’s qualification bid.
The first stumble came in France’s opening group fixture in Barysaw, where Deschamps’ troops lumbered to a 0-0 draw against hosts Belarus. A starting XI that included seven Premier League-based players looked bereft of ideas before the introduction of Dimitri Payet, who then inspired the French to a 4-1 victory in their second match against Bulgaria.
Victories over the Netherlands, Sweden and Luxembourg lifted France to the top of Group A, before a stoppage-time winner from Ola Toivonen in the return trip to Sweden briefly catapulted the hosts into first place.
France were back on top after their very next match, in what was arguably their most impressive display of the qualifying campaign. Goals from Griezmann, Thomas Lemar (2) and Mbappe helped the French see off the Netherlands 4-0, but an awful result was to follow just three days later.
A 0-0 home draw against Luxembourg, then ranked 136th in the world, was the source of great humiliation, with a team containing Pogba, Mbappe, Griezmann, Lemar and Olivier Giroud unable to break down a side France hadn’t failed to beat in over 100 years.
That result was put into perspective by Sweden’s subsequent 8-0 thrashing of the same opposition, but France finally saw off the Scandinavians’ challenge for top spot with back-to-back victories over Belarus and Bulgaria in their last two group fixtures.
Of the nine European teams who qualified as group winners, only Iceland (16) scored fewer goals than France (18). Seven of the 13 qualifiers from Europe had better defensive records than France, meanwhile, who conceded six goals. The Netherlands were the only team in France’s group to fail to score against them, with even Luxembourg and Belarus breaching the French defence.
Deschamps has generally favoured a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 in qualification, with a preference for hard-working midfielders in the centre and pacey wingers flanking a target man up front.
Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Blaise Matuidi are possible starters in the engine room, though Corentin Tolisso has a fair claim to one of those midfield spots.
Griezmann is a definite starter either wide right or as a second striker, with Giroud and Mbappe perhaps at the front of the queue to join him. Lemar, Ousmane Dembele and Nabil Fekir are hardly inferior options in the attacking positions, however.
Most starts: Antoine Griezmann (10), Hugo Lloris, Djibril Sidibe (9), Raphael Varane, Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogba, Olivier Giroud (7), Samuel Umtiti, N’Golo Kante (5)
Most goals: Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud (4), Paul Pogba, Thomas Lemar (2)
Most assists: Antoine Griezmann (4), Djibril Sidibe (3)
Injury keeps Laurent Koscielny (who made eight appearances in qualification) and Dimitri Payet (who scored two goals and supplied two assists) out of the 23-man World Cup squad.
Since qualifying for the World Cup in October, France have contested six friendlies: wins over Wales, Russia, the Republic of Ireland and Italy were punctuated by a 3-2 defeat to Colombia (the French having surrendered a two-goal lead) and a 2-2 draw with Germany.
The Key Targets
No France player made more starts, scored more goals or supplied more assists in qualifying than Antoine Griezmann. Priced at £10.0m in McDonald’s FIFA World Cup Fantasy, he is a cheaper forward option than the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo (£12.0m) and Lionel Messi (£12.0m), though Griezmann scored fewer qualifying goals (four) than any premium forward listed at £9.5m+.
In 295 minutes of international friendly action since November, Griezmann has scored on two further occasions – including a penalty in the 3-1 win over Italy on 1 June. Griezmann started as the focal point of the French attack in that victory over the Italians, rather than in his usual withdrawn position.
The Atletico Madrid star scored 19 league goals for his club in 2017/18, the fifth successive season in which he has registered at least 16 La Liga goals.
Olivier Giroud (£9.0m) is a cheaper option in the French forward line. Despite Deschamps having a wealth of attacking options at his disposal, Giroud is the only real out-and-out striker in his squad, with Alexandre Lacazette omitted from the 23-man party.
Though Giroud’s starts aren’t quite as assured as Griezmann’s, Deschamps will surely play the Chelsea centre-forward if he sticks with his usual formula of fielding a target-man in a 4-2-3-1 or 4-3-3.
The former Arsenal striker has three goals in five friendly appearances since November – Giroud was on target in France’s 2-0 win over Ireland on 28 May – to add to his four goals scored during qualification.
Though he made only two starts in qualification, Kylian Mbappe (£9.0m) is arguably France’s form player. The 19-year-old prodigy has two goals and five assists to his name in the national side’s six friendlies contested over the last seven months.
On loan from Monaco at Paris Saint-Germain this season, Mbappe has scored 13 goals in 27 Ligue I appearances.
Paul Pogba (£9.0m) has thrilled and frustrated both Manchester United fans and Fantasy managers alike in an up-and-down season at Old Trafford, but his 5.1 points per match was a better Fantasy Premier League average than any United outfielder in 2017/18.
The former Juventus midfielder scored six goals and supplied 13 assists for United in the league this season, but could only score on two occasions during World Cup qualification. Pogba has since scored one goal and registered an assist in three friendly appearances for the national team, but was booed off by French supporters in the victory over Italy.
Raphael Varane (£6.0m) and Samuel Umtiti (£6.0m), rivals at Real Madrid and Barcelona respectively, look probable starters at centre-back and are France’s two most expensive defensive options. With only four international goals between them (Varane indeed has scored only one La Liga goal in six seasons) and clean sheets not a certainty even against inferior opposition, the outlay is difficult to justify – particularly when better value lies elsewhere (see below).
The Long Shots
Djibril Sidibe (£5.5m) is the joint-cheapest France defender McDonald’s FIFA World Cup Fantasy game and could be a steal at that price. The Monaco full-back made more appearances (nine) and kept more clean sheets (six) than any other French defender in qualification, while also registering three assists.
Sidibe faces competition for the right-back slot from the versatile Benjamin Pavard (not yet on McDonald’s FIFA World Cup Fantasy), but Sidibe’s greater offensive threat may get him the nod for at least the group matches in which France’s opposition will likely sit deep.
The 25-year-old defender also supplied seven assists for Monaco in Ligue I this season.
The sheer number of options available to Deschamps means that gifted attacking midfielders such as Thomas Lemar and Nabil Fekir (both 8.0m and listed as forwards) may be reduced to making brief substitute appearances, but these two talents in particular should be on Fantasy managers’ watchlists if injury, suspension or loss of form forces the France manager into a change up top.
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