Few would be too surprised if France emerged as world champions this summer. Few would be too surprised if they failed to make it past the last-16 stage.
This is the conundrum of les bleus. The second youngest squad at these finals (the already eliminated Nigeria were the youngest), they clearly possess plenty of potential. But then we have been saying that for a long time now. France were beaten in the final of their own European Championships tournament by a moderate Portugal side two years ago.
In Brazil four years ago they came up short in the quarter- finals against a flu-ridden Germany at the Maracana stadium. There was much less expectation then; they had, after all, failed to qualify from the group stage in South Africa in 2010 amid much squad unhappiness under Raymond Domenech.
They were simply happy to have got to the last eight four years later under Didier Deschamps. And it showed in a rather limp performance as they went down 1-0 to Germany.
France face another formidable foe this afternoon. But it’s not as if Argentina, their opponents in Kazan as they contest a quarter-final place, are easy to assess either. They have limped through to this stage. Until a late strike from Marcos Rojo in the 2-1 win over Nigeria on Tuesday, they were heading out.
Their survival to fight another day has thrown up a genuinely fascinating encounter between aristocrats of European and South American football. They are both eager to prove their best days are not behind them. With the talent at their disposal, the future should be bright. Unlike the tottering Argentina, one of the older squads at the tournament, France should not fear what the future holds. But their hopes hinge on harnessing their wealth of talent.
Much depends on a talisman recreating his club form. No, not Lionel Messi, but Antoine Griezmann. The Atletico Madrid forward kept everyone in suspense before revealing he’d signed a new contract with his club shortly before the World Cup began. But he’s so far failed to show the form that had so many clubs queueing up to try to sign him.
He was substituted in all three group games as France qualified in unspectacular fashion. Griezmann has previous form for being a slow burner in tournament football. The striker did not get into his stride until the knockout stage at France 2016. He scored twice in the last-16 win over Republic of Ireland and ended up being named the best player of the tournament. He has scored for France already but only from the penalty spot in their opening group match win over Australia.
At 19, Kylian Mbappe became France’s youngest goalscorer at a World Cup with the winner v Peru. Despite this, he is another many are waiting for to reach the heights expected.
France have scored just three times in their opening three games. Today is manager Deschamps’ 80th match in charge of France. “It’s tough for everyone,” he said, when asked about his team’s struggles in front of goal. “Spain or Germany, with their reputations for attacking football, have also been struggling. Will things open up more in the round of 16? I don’t know. I hope so.”
For France, a maiden win over Argentina hinges on stopping Messi, pictured. Argentina have won both of their two World Cup finals meetings with France to date, reaching the final on both occasions.
As a player, Deschamps was confronted with a similar problem when France beat a Brazil team led by Ronaldo 3-0 to win the 1998 World Cup. Ronaldo was arguably the world’s best striker at the time, with his speed and fast crossovers making him nearly unstoppable. The French squad spent hours studying the striker before the final at the Stade de France. After some confusion, when he was omitted from the teamsheet and then suddenly reinstated, he started the game. However, with reports later emerging he had suffered a fit before the game, he failed to shine.
Much rests on Messi’s shoulders, too. But he has already proved he can live with the immense pressure in this, his likely last World Cup. He excelled against Nigeria, scoring an exquisite opening goal in a game Argentina had to win.
Fortunately for them, while their strikers are still to truly display their worth, France’s centre-back pairing of Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti has been solid, conceding only once. Umtiti knows Messi extremely well because he trains with the Argentina great at Barcelona on a day-to-day basis at Barcelona. Varane, a regular starter for Real Madrid, has vast experience of playing against Messi.
“We are facing an extraordinary player [in Messi],” said Deschamps. “We need to be careful and make sure we give our players a maximum of information. With the talent he has, the smallest thing can create a spark, his unpredictability sets him apart.” France, too, can be unpredictable. It could prove an advantage as well as a weakness.