The French travel to Brazil hoping to redeem themselves after a scandalous 2010 World Cup, which included the expulsion of Nicholas Anelka, a team-wide mutiny against the coaching staff, and a near fight between then-captain Patrice Evra and the French fitness coach. The 2010 squad imploded after a few lackluster performances among disagreements over tactics between veteran players and manager Raymond Domenech. New national team manager Didier Deschamps, who captained the French in their World Cup victory in 1998, has rid the squad of any lingering cancers from 2010, as he only brought back four of the twenty-three players: goalkeeper Hugo Lloris, midfielder Mathieu Valbuena, and defenders Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna. It was a controversial inclusion for Evra, who was suspended five games for his role in the 2010 debacle.
Compared to some of its European rivals, the French have an extremely favorable draw in the 2014 tournament. Talent-wise, France are the best team in their group, and should easily advance to the round of sixteen. If France win their group, they will avoid a matchup with the winner of Group F, likely Argentina. France’s most difficult challenge may be breaking a historical trend that has plagued them several times in the past: France have failed to advance out of the first round at three out of their four previous World Cups outside of Europe. They need positive results early if they hope to change that. Here are three keys to a French victory.
Don’t Underestimate Honduras
While France are clearly the most talented team in Group E, Honduras play the foil, themselves the least-talented team. In order to avoid opening round drama, the French need a good result against weaker competition before facing tougher Group E counterparts Switzerland and Ecuador. Getting these three points are crucial if France wants to win the group and avoid the Round of Sixteen matchup with Argentina. Honduras’s best chance to get a result against France will be on the counterattack. Therefore, France’s center back duo of Laurent Koscielny and Mamadou Sakho will need to be attentive and active throughout the game, even if France maintains most of the possession, which is likely.
The recent injury to Bayern Munich star Franck Ribéry undoubtedly hurts the French. The third place finisher in this year’s Ballon d’Or award for the best footballer in Europe is one of the most dangerous players in the world, and would leave any lineup in need of help at the midfielder/wing position. If there was one position where France could afford to field a replacement, however, it’s Ribery’s. Deschamps will play some combination of Mathieu Valbuena, Loïc Rémy, and Antoine Griezmann, with the first two probably starting.
They’ll likely be deployed behind Karim Benzema, who had an on and off year at Real Madrid. Benzema finished the year on a bit of an upswing, starting in the Champions League final and even creating a number of chances. At his best, Benzema can be a world-class striker, but if he underperforms, Deschamps has Arsenal’s Olivier Giroud waiting to take his place.
Newcomers Need to Step Up
France only has four returning World Cup players, and though they will all start, that still leaves seven places in the starting XI for players with no World Cup experience. Those newcomers are tasked with an unenviable job; they must make up for shortcomings, which they took no part in. These players will have to step in all over the field, including at the aforementioned central defense and forward positions. The one positional group without any World Cup veterans is the central midfield; France will start two of Blaise Matuidi, Yohan Cabaye and Moussa Sissoko to go along with 21-year old phenom Paul Pogba.
Already one of the most gifted central midfielders in the world, Pogba has the athletic prowess and technical ability to dominate any game in the middle of the park, regardless of who he goes up against. The Juventus player hasn’t shied away from the limelight yet in his early career, earning a starting spot in a stacked central midfield which includes established stars Andrea Pirlo, Claudio Marchisio and Arturo Vidal. The youngster even finished fourth in goals and points (goals and assists) for the Serie A Champions.
Pogba has quite a bit of responsibility on his broad shoulders; he will be looked upon to create goal-scoring opportunities for Benzema and company, while still tracking back and playing box-to-box. If Pogba can lead this young team into the latter stages of the tournament, he will make everyone forget the disastrous 2010 World Cup, and give French football fans hope for years to come.