France are hoping to heed a warning from history as they kick off their defence of the World Cup trophy in a group which bears a remarkable resemblance to the section in which they started their road to glory four years ago in Russia.
Like in 2018, Les Bleus begin their World Cup campaign against Australia and they will also take on Denmark in Group D.
The only difference in Qatar is that Tunisia complete the section instead of Peru, who lost an intercontinental qualifying play-off on penalties to the Socceroos.
France come into this World Cup billed as one of the leading contenders to go all the way, but past experience should teach them to be wary.
After all, no nation has successfully defended the trophy since Brazil in 1962, and the last time the French went to the tournament as defending champions, they swiftly returned home with their tails between their legs. Having won the World Cup on home soil in 1998, four years later they went to South Korea as defending European champions and clear favourites to claim another title.
Hampered by an injury to Zinedine Zidane, they were stunned by Senegal in their opening game and were eliminated in the group stage without even scoring a goal.
A repeat of such a scenario seems improbable for the side coached by Didier Deschamps, who have an attack led by the brilliant Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema, the latter fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or.
Throw in Antoine Griezmann, Christopher Nkunku and Ousmane Dembele, and scoring goals should be no issue for Les Bleus, but they have problems elsewhere.
Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, their first-choice midfielders in 2018, are out injured, and several others have been struggling for fitness.
“During our last get-together we were faced with an injury crisis, but there are no doubts in our minds, we know how difficult the World Cup is for everybody,” coach Deschamps told AFP last month.
“France are still a competitive side, but we know we’ll have a lot to do,” to retain the trophy, he added.
- Dangerous Danes -
Denmark, who overcame the traumatic collapse of Christian Eriksen to reach the semi-finals of Euro 2020, have the appearance of dangerous outsiders.
They cruised through qualifying with nine wins, and 30 goals scored, in 10 games and defeated France home and away in their recent UEFA Nations League campaign.
“There is a great work ethic and a desire to improve as a collective. We can be really good if we continue to make sacrifices for each other,” said coach Kasper Hjulmand, who now has Manchester United midfielder Eriksen back in his squad.
France and Denmark meet in their second game and that could be crucial in determining who tops the section, with the danger being that Argentina could lie in wait in the last 16.
Australia have not made it out of their group since the 2006 World Cup and failed to win a game at either of the last two tournaments.
Graham Arnold’s side only qualified for Qatar by the skin of their teeth and just winning a game this time would have to rank as a major achievement for a side short on players plying their trade in major European leagues.
Meanwhile Tunisia are dreaming of getting out of their group at a World Cup for the first time at what will be their sixth attempt.
The Carthage Eagles came within seconds of holding England to a draw in 2018.
Jalel Kadri’s team will be targeting a victory against the Socceroos in their second game to give themselves a chance of making history and reaching the knockout phase.
They will look to the Corsican-born Wahbi Khazri for attacking inspiration.
“We know we are certainly not among the favourites, but anything is possible in a major competition and we will try to spring a surprise,” said their Cologne midfielder Ellyes Skhiri, another of the French-born members of their squad.
Country profile – France
Best World Cup performance: Winners in 1998 and 2018
Other honours: European Championship winners in 1984 and 2000; FIFA Confederations Cup winners 2001, 2003; UEFA Nations League winners 2021
FIFA ranking: 4
Main clubs: Paris Saint-Germain, Marseille, Lyon, Monaco, Rennes, Nice, Lille
How they qualified: Finished first in European qualifying Group D
Coach: Didier Deschamps, 54, is one of only three men to have won the World Cup as a player and a coach. He followed in the footsteps of Brazil’s Mario Zagallo and West Germany’s Franz Beckenbauer as he captained France to victory as hosts in 1998 and then coached them to glory four years ago in Russia. As a midfielder, Deschamps also won Euro 2000 with his country and was a Champions League winner with Marseille and Juventus. He was just 32 when he retired from playing and as a coach he took Monaco to a Champions League final and won Ligue 1 with Marseille before succeeding Laurent Blanc as France boss in 2012. Deschamps also took Les Bleus to the last eight in Brazil in 2014 and the Euro 2016 final. They had a poor Euro 2020 but bounced back to win last year’s UEFA Nations League.
Key player: Karim Benzema is enjoying a remarkable twilight to his career. He will turn 35 the day after the World Cup final but he goes to Qatar fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or as recognition for his magnificent performances in captaining Real Madrid to glory in La Liga and the Champions League last season. Benzema was frozen out of the France team for five and a half years – missing the 2018 World Cup win – due to his role in a blackmail scandal involving a sextape and his international teammate Mathieu Valbuena. He was convicted for his role in that affair last year but by then he had returned to the France side, playing at Euro 2020 and in the team that won the UEFA Nations League. The star forward, however, comes into the tournament with an injury cloud around him.
November 22: France v Australia
November 26: France v Denmark
November 30: Tunisia v France
Goalkeepers: Alphonse Areola, Hugo Lloris, Steve Mandanda.
Defenders: Axel Disasi, Lucas Hernandez, Theo Hernandez, Ibrahima Konate, Jules Kounde, Benjamin Pavard, William Saliba, Dayot Upamecano, Raphael Varane.
Midfielders: Eduardo Camavinga, Youssouf Fofana, Matteo Guendouzi, Adrien Rabiot, Aurelien Tchouameni, Jordan Veretout.
Forwards: Karim Benzema, Kingsley Coman, Ousmane Dembele, Olivier Giroud, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Marcus Thuram, Randal Kolo Muani.
Country profile – Australia
Best World Cup performance: Last 16 in 2006
Other honours: Asian Cup winners 2015; Oceania Football Confederation Nations Cup winners 1980, 1996, 2000, 2004
FIFA ranking: 38
Main clubs: Sydney FC, Melbourne Victory, Brisbane Roar, Melbourne City
How they qualified: Came third behind Saudi Arabia and Japan in Asian qualifying Group B, then won intercontinental playoff against Peru 5-4 on penalties after game was deadlocked without a goal for 120 minutes
Coach: Graham Arnold, 59, was appointed in 2018 after Dutchman Bert van Marwijk departed in the wake of the last World Cup. Arnold was previously an assistant at the Socceroos and worked alongside Guus Hiddink during the 2006 World Cup, where Australia made the last 16. His tactics and style of play have come under criticism and he narrowly avoided the sack after Australia failed to automatically qualify for Qatar.
Key player: Aaron Mooy is arguably Australia’s most important player, marshalling the midfield and bringing vast experience. Now with Scottish side Celtic, the 32-year-old played in the Premier League for Brighton and Huddersfield Town.
November 22: France v Australia
November 26: Tunisia v Australia
November 30: Australia v Denmark
Goalkeepers: Mat Ryan, Andrew Redmayne, Danny Vukovic
Defenders: Milos Degenek, Aziz Behich, Joel King, Nathaniel Atkinson, Fran Karacic, Harry Souttar, Kye Rowles, Bailey Wright, Thomas Deng
Midfielders: Aaron Mooy, Jackson Irvine, Ajdin Hrustic, Keanu Baccus, Cameron Devlin, Riley McGree
Forwards: Awer Mabil, Mathew Leckie, Martin Boyle, Jamie Maclaren, Jason Cummings, Mitchell Duke, Garang Kuol, Craig Goodwin
Country profile – Denmark
Best World Cup performance: Quarter-finalists in 1998
Other honours: European champions in 1992
FIFA ranking: 10th
Main clubs: FC Copenhagen, Midtjylland, Brondby
How they qualified: Denmark finished first in European qualifying Group F
Coach: Kasper Hjulmand, 50, was appointed in 2020 as the successor to Age Hareide, whose contract expired after the dates initially set for that year’s European Championship. Hjulmand coached in Germany from 2014-15, replacing Thomas Tuchel at Mainz but failing to make it through his first season. After a second spell at Nordsjælland. Hjulmand guided the Danes to the semi-finals of Euro 2020, overcoming the trauma of Christian Eriksen’s on-pitch collapse in the opening game before falling just short against England after a controversial extra-time penalty.
Key player: Christian Eriksen’s mere presence at the World Cup is nothing short of a “miracle” in his own words. The Danish playmaker “died for five minutes” after collapsing on the pitch following a cardiac arrest at Euro 2020. He was fitted with a defibrillator but Italian rules prevented him from playing again with Inter Milan. Eriksen returned to action after eight months out with Brentford, where his displays earned him a move to Manchester United. The 30-year-old has been a regular for Erik ten Hag this season and will be appearing at his third World Cup.
November 22: Denmark v Tunisia
November 26: France v Denmark
November 30: Australia v Denmark
Goalkeepers: Kasper Schmeichel, Oliver Christensen, Frederik Ronnow
Defenders: Alexander Bah, Simon Kjaer, Joachim Andersen, Joakim Maehle, Andreas Christensen, Rasmus Kristensen, Jens Stryger Larsen, Victor Nelsson, Daniel Wass
Midfielders: Thomas Delaney, Mathias Jensen, Christian Eriksen, Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg, Christian Norgaard, Robert Skov
Forwards: Andreas Cornelius, Martin Braithwaite, Kasper Dolberg, Mikkel Damsgaard, Jesper Lindstrom, Yussuf Poulsen, Andreas Skov Olsen, Jonas Wind
Country profile – Tunisia
Best World Cup performance: First round in five appearances
Other honours: African champions in 2004
FIFA ranking: 30
Main clubs: Club Africain, CS Sfaxien, Esperance, Etoile Sahel
How they qualified: Tunisia defeated Mali in a play-off
Coach: The enormity of the task facing Jalel Kadri was laid bare a month ago in Paris when record five-time world champions Brazil trounced Tunisia 5-1 in a warm-up match. “We know France is of the same quality as Brazil,” said the 50-year-old, with Denmark and Australia their other group rivals. “The World Cup draw has placed Tunisia in a very difficult section.” Kadri has been in charge since March after being promoted from an assistant role when Mondher Kebaier was sacked following an Africa Cup of Nations quarter-finals loss to Burkina Faso. In 20 years as a club coach, Kadri has worked in Tunisia, Libya, Saudi Arabia and the UAE.
Key player: Youssef Msakni has been the mainstay of the Tunisian national team for more than a decade and will be desperate to impress in Qatar having missed the 2018 World Cup in Russia due to an ankle injury. His remarkable versatility enables him to play in his preferred position of winger, but also as a central striker, a midfielder and a left-back. Msakni spent seven seasons with two Tunisian clubs, including giants Esperance, before moving to Al Duhail in Qatar in 2013. The 32-year-old has since spent loan spells at Eupen in Belgium and with another Doha outfit, Al Arabi.
Nov 22: Denmark v Tunisia
Nov 26: Tunisia v Australia
Nov 30: Tunisia v France
Goalkeepers: Aymen Dahmen, Bechir Ben Said, Mouez Hassen, Aymen Mathlouthi
Defenders: Ali Abdi, Dylan Bronn, Mohamed Drager, Nader Ghandri, Bilel Ifa, Wajdi Kechrida, Ali Maaloul, Yassine Meriah, Montassar Talbi
Midfielders: Mohamed Ali Ben Romdhane, Ghaylane Chaalali, Aissa Laidouni, Hannibal Mejbri, Ferjani Sassi, Elyas Skhiri
Forwards: Anis Ben Slimane, Seifeddine Jaziri, Issam Jebali, Wahbi Khazri, Taha Yassine Khenissi, Youssef Msakni, Naim Sliti
Text inputs from AFP