In the middle of a fascinating opening weekend of the 2018 World Cup France face Australia in a match that, on paper, looks like the easiest to predict. Australia qualified for the World Cup via narrow playoff wins against Syria and Honduras and only appointed a new manager, Bert van Marwijk, in January this year. France really ought to win comfortably.
Didier Deschamps still seems unsure of who to start or what formation to play in Russia, and so this opener will teach us plenty about his likely approach throughout the tournament. It might not be much of a contest at the Kazan Arena, but it will be interesting to see just how confident France are feeling, particularly after Spain’s manager debacle has lifted them to third favourites to win the World Cup.
In a group with Denmark and Peru, Australia is undoubtedly the simplest fixture for France, which comes with its own set of psychological problems. Anything but a fluid and powerful performance could increase nerves in the camp, although judging by the Aussie’s recent track record France really don’t have anything to worry about.
Australia’s tame friendly wins in June taught us little, whereas in March a 4-1 defeat to Norway highlighted some serious structural issues. France, meanwhile, looked competent in a 2-1 win over Nigeria this month with Deschamps reportedly set to make just one change from the side that won in a fast-paced 4-3-3 that day.
That means Ousmane Dembele, Kylian Mbappe, and Antoine Griezmann will lead the line together, frequently swapping positions to make confusing runs on the shoulder of the last defender, and it also means a starting spot for Bayern Munich’s Corentin Tolisso. His defensive work alongside N’Golo Kante helps free Paul Pogba to strut his stuff higher up the field. Raphael Varane returns from injury to play alongside Samuel Umtiti.
More significantly, the two young full-backs Theo Hernandez and Benjamin Pavard will get surprise starts. Both players bombed forward aggressively against the Super Eagles, adding much-needed width in a narrow 4-3-3 and supplying high quality crosses into the box. Given that Australia will sit back and look to limit space in the final third, the whipped balls from Hernandez and Pavard could be crucial in forcing an opener.
Nothing less than three points will do for the French, who have been given a golden opportunity to lay down an early marker before the likes of Brazil, Germany, or Argentina play.
Paul Pogba – The 25-year-old Manchester United midfielder continues to struggle in the national jersey, often ambling around the pitch to no great effect. He was anonymous in the 2-1 win against Nigeria, and we are fast reaching the point that Deschamps loses patience with Pogba altogether. The use of a 4-3-3 is specifically to accommodate Pogba’s needs; if he doesn’t play well against Australia, he surely cannot be relied upon for the remainder of the tournament.
Benjamin Pavard – Australia will look to fill the middle of the pitch with bodies, sitting in a deep blockade and inviting an onslaught. That means Pogba is likely to be crowded out while Mbappe and Dembele will struggle to find the space they need. Consequently Pavard’s overlapping runs and excellent crossing ability might be the key to unlocking the Socceroos.
Aaron Mooy – Huddersfield Town’s dynamic central midfielder is Australia’s star player and the natural leader of their World Cup campaign. His long-range passing and his ability to weave away from pressure will be crucial if Australia are to launch counter-attacks and relieve some of the pressure on their goal.
The two nations last met in 2013 when France won a friendly match 6-0, but more famously they went head-to-head in the Confederations Cup in 2001 with Australia implausibly winning 1-0 thanks to a goal from Clayton Zane. This will be just the fifth meeting between the nations and the first for five years; neither Deschamps nor Van Marwijk will know precisely what to expect.
France: Lloris; Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernandez; Tolisso, Kante, Pogba; Mbappe, Griezmann, Dembele
Australia: Ryan; Behich, Milligan, Sainsbury, Risdon; Leckie, Mooy, Rogic, Luongo, Kruse; Nabbout
France 3-0 Australia