France v Australia
France begin their defence of their World Cup crown with a fixture against Australia that they are entirely expected to win. It may not be the cakewalk that is predicted, though. Les Bleus have a number of headaches approaching this match, with Didier Deschamps’ side suffering from a string of injury problems that see them travel to Qatar without a number of leading names, including Paul Pogba, N’Golo Kante and Christopher Nkunku.
On top of these problems, Raphael Varane and Karim Benzema both appear unlikely to play a full part in this match after suffering knocks shortly before the World Cup. Benzema’s participation in the competition at the time of writing is seriously doubtful. Didier Deschamps’ starting XI is, therefore, a source of great conjecture, particularly since France have been out of form in recent months, winning only one of their last six international matches.
Australia head into their first match at the World Cup as massive underdogs against the World Champions. The Socceroos are sweating on the fitness of Ajdin Hrustić, Kye Rowles and Harry Souttar while attacking livewire Martin Boyle has been replaced in the squad by Marco Tilio due to injury. Many fans of Australia do not see much cause for optimism in the squad. The World Cup qualifying campaign was littered with error-strewn performances as Graham Arnold’s side toiled with having to play 16 of their 20 matches outside of Australia.
While the physical and energetic Mitch Duke is set to lead the line, the Aussies have struggled to score goals from open play and managed to find the net just once in four matches against Japan and Saudi Arabia, the two nations that qualified automatically from Group B in AFC qualifying. These struggles are underscored by the fact that 6 foot 7 inch central defender Harry Souttar scored the second most amount of goals for Australia during the qualifying campaign. He has not featured for the Socceroos since rupturing his ACL against Saudi Arabia but will be a welcome inclusion for his set-piece threat and defensive presence.
France are set to wrestle with the curse of the defending champions. Germany, Spain, Italy and Les Bleus themselves are the last four European winners of the competition – and all four have exited in the group stage of the subsequent tournament. It would be an enormous upset if France were to add to this list, but they’re not coming into this tournament in great shape and the Socceroos will be looking for an upset.
Kylian Mbappe is the likeliest scorer in this match and that is reflected in the odds. But while the PSG striker is on offer at less than evens, it still looks like an attractive price. After all, he is enjoying by far his best period in international football, having scored 11 times in his last 10 matches. The only teams to shut him out in these games have been Denmark (twice) and Croatia. He’s got 19 goals in 20 games at club level this season, so is high in confidence. The World Cup stage will not faze him, having played so successfully in 2018.
France are unlikely to find it easy to break down Australia, and with a lack of width in their team coming from deep, it could be that they resort to efforts from range to test their opponents. If they begin to find it difficult to break the Socceroos down, Griezmann is liable to be the player who is most dangerous for them from range. The Atletico Madrid player will seek to find pockets of space behind Giroud from which to threaten from distance, while he could also be over free kicks, which offer a relatively simple opportunity to get something on target. His importance in the France team has dimmed since 2018, but with Benzema struggling, look for him to come to the fore once more.
Unlocking the Australia defence is likely to require some manner of individualism from France if a goal comes from open play, and in Les Bleus’ squad there is no-one more suited to this than the Barcelona winger. Earlier this season, he went on a streak of six successive matches for Barca in which he had a shot on target, although he has cooled in this regard since. His importance for France, though, has just stepped up a notch, so look for him to cut in off the right onto his left foot and get shots away. Dembele tends to offer multiple shots on target in matches he does threaten, so looking Dembele getting two or even three efforts to test the goalkeeper is also worth consideration.
Mathew Leckie is one of the most experienced players in Australia’s team. He has been deployed both on the left wing and as a more central striking option. Strong in the air and good on the ball, Leckie will be a clear target at Australia’s set-pieces and will also look to make late arrivals into the penalty area as he seeks to etch his name onto the scoresheet. The former Hertha Berlin attacker is in sublime form with Melbourne City and is likely to start against France and look to cause havoc. He will have a crucial role to play in the absence of Martin Boyle.
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