France's talented midfield alongside Mbappe and Griezmann means they are World Cup challengers

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Celebrating a goal: France

With a potent attack featuring teenage sensation Kylian Mbappe and Atletico Madrid hotshot Antoine Griezmann and a midfield stuffed with talent, France should be among the World Cup favourites.

Alexandre Lacazette offers yet another attacking threat, a top-class goalkeeper in Hugo Lloris and depth at virtually every position, France coach Didier Deschamps will approach Friday’s draw in Moscow with confidence.

“I think France will be very strong. When you have a trio like Griezmann, Lacazette and Mbappe, you have a strong team. The experience that the team has from a generation of veteran players, backed up by these young players, makes them a candidate to win the title,” Brazil coach told Canal Plus TV ahead of the draw.

Yet Deschamps will recall that since he himself lifted the trophy after the glorious victory on home soil in 1998, France have suffered as much World Cup pain as pleasure.

In 2002, Zinedine Zidane limped into South Korea with a hamstring injury and never looked the player who had inspired the victory over Brazil four years earlier. France, thoroughly humiliated, crashed out in the group stage.

SELF DESTRUCTION

Making no early predictions for his team: Didier Deschamps

Making no early predictions for his team: Didier Deschamps

Zidane was back stronger and fitter four years later though, driving his team to the final against Italy in Berlin only to infamously lose his cool with a headbutt to the chest of Marco Materazzi. He was sent off and France lost.

In South Africa in 2010, France self-destructed amid a players’ revolt against idiosyncratic coach Raymond Domenech.

In 2014, eventual winners Germany sent them home after the quarter-finals.

France made heavy work of a relatively lightweight qualifying group for the 2018 tournament, with a 0-0 draw against tiny Luxembourg one of the most baffling results.

That is perhaps why Deschamps refuses to make rash predictions – he just wants his team “to go as far as possible” in Russia.

Optimistic about his team's bid for WC 2018: Blaise Matuidi

Optimistic about his team’s bid for WC 2018: Blaise Matuidi

Midfield livewire Blaise Matuidi said the team realised they sometimes failed to amount to the sum of their parts, but he predicted that the big guns would be wary of them.

Speaking after a 2-2 draw in a friendly against Germany on November 14, Matuidi said: “Of course we can always do better, but we showed tonight that we are a force to be reckoned with at the World Cup, and Germany will have taken note of that.”

And the talent just comes coming, with that offensive unit complemented by Nabil Fekir, who has shone for Lyon this season, while many coaches in the world would like to build their team around midfield powerhouse N’Golo Kante.

So when Russia 2018 dawns, France’s prospects would appear to largely depend on whether the players are in the right frame of mind.

Provided by AFP Sport

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Kane leads hungry young England lions but tournament failures means optimism is tempered

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Will be England's main man: Harry Kane

Though untroubled in qualifying, England approach Friday’s 2018 World Cup draw harbouring the same eternal doubts about whether they will crack under pressure once the tournament comes around.

England have picked up the pieces impressively under Gareth Southgate since their humiliation by Iceland at Euro 2016, finishing unbeaten and eight points clear in their qualifying group.

Young players such as Harry Kane, Dele Alli and Marcus Rashford promise a bright future, but memories of successive tournament failures mean any optimism is tempered by the caution of bitter experience.

“At the end of the day, we’ve not won anything for a long time,” says Kane.

“The biggest (challenge) is playing tournament football. Ability-wise, I don’t think we’re far off, but it’s producing on that big stage. It’s something that we’ve got to change.”

“Brittle” was the word used by football Association chief executive Martin Glenn to describe England’s psychological problems after the Iceland debacle, which yielded manager Roy Hodgson’s resignation.

The England squad’s delicate psychic state was not helped by events that followed, as Sam Allardyce, Hodgson’s successor, was brought down by a newspaper sting after just one game in charge.

Gesturing to his players: Gareth Southgate

Giving instructions: England manager Gareth Southgate

Southgate, promoted from his role as England Under-21s manager, has tackled the issue head-on, encouraging dialogue among his players about the appropriate mental responses to on-pitch adversity.

England made light work of a straightforward qualifying group featuring Slovakia, Slovenia, Scotland, Lithuania and Malta, dropping only four points on the road to Russia.

But a number of their victories were laborious and they completed qualification against Slovenia in front of swathes of empty red seats at Wembley.

STONES BLOSSOMS

The most recent international get-together earlier this month demonstrated both Southgate’s desire to widen England’s tactical range and his readiness to make bold selection decisions.

Having already jettisoned captain and record scorer Wayne Rooney, Southgate chose to overlook players such as Chris Smalling, Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, Jack Wilshere and Daniel Sturridge.

A raft of injuries meant he was forced to field two distinctly green teams against Germany and Brazil, but his new charges performed creditably in a pair of 0-0 draws.

A key figure in England's defence: John Stones

A key figure in England’s defence: John Stones

“We’re at a different point on our journey (to Germany and Brazil), but we will take huge belief from what we’ve done,” Southgate said.

The games also served to help Southgate test the 3-4-2-1 system that he is eager to employ in light of its successful adoption by several leading Premier League clubs.

The draws with Germany and Brazil further illustrated England’s defensive solidity after a qualifying campaign in which they conceded just three goals – a tally matched only by Spain in Europe.

Despite that, there are question marks about goalkeeper Joe Hart, who faces competition from Stoke City’s Jack Butland and Everton’s Jordan Pickford.

With John Stones blossoming at Manchester City, England now possess an authoritative figure in central defence who is capable of bringing the ball out from the back in the manner Southgate desires.

Stones’s City team-mate Kyle Walker and Tottenham Hotspur’s Danny Rose provide pace and power on the flanks and in Kane, who has scored 47 goals for club and country in 2017, England possess a first-rate frontman.

But though Alli, Rashford and Raheem Sterling give England plenty of variety in attacking midfield, aside from Eric Dier and Jordan Henderson there is a paucity of quality and experience in the centre of the pitch.

Provided by AFP Sport

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Fresh blood has injected new life into a Spain side back among the World Cup favourites

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Expecting a tough group: Julen Lopetegui

They may not be a top seed for Friday’s World Cup draw in Moscow, but the fresh blood added by coach Julen Lopetegui has put Spain back among the favourites for glory next July.

Early exits at the 2014 World Cup and Euro 2016 appeared to show the sun was setting on Spain’s most successful generation after three consecutive major tournament triumphs at Euros 2008 and 2012 either side of La Roja’s only ever World Cup title in South Africa in 2010.

However, since succeeding Vicente del Bosque, Lopetegui has blended the experienced remnants of the World Cup winning side with a host of graduates from the under-21 team he led to a European title in 2013.

The results have been spectacular. Sixteen games into his reign, Lopetegui has yet to taste defeat.

Spain’s qualifying record of nine wins and a draw, scoring 36 goals and conceding just three, left Italy a distant second in Group G and on the brink of their World Cup abyss.

Just over a year after being dumped out of Euro 2016 by the Azzurri, Spain thrashed Italy 3-0 at the Santiago Bernabeu in September in a style reminiscent of the “tiki-taka” short-passing game that bamboozled opponents and won fans across the world between 2008 and 2012.

“I believe that the best thing a coach has to do is optimise and make the most of the virtues of his players”, Lopetegui told Barcelona-based sports newspaper Mundo Deportivo on Wednesday.

“I think that the best quality of Spanish players is their passing ability and individual technique. Logically, we have to take advantage of that.”

Lopetegui said it would be a mistake to try to adopt the Italian “door-bolt” defensive system.

“Spain can’t play catenaccio because that wouldn’t make the most of the quality of our players.”

YOUTH AND EXPERIENCE

Posing for the team photograph: Spain

Posing for the team photograph: Spain

The core that has survived from Spain’s heyday contains Sergio Ramos, Gerard Pique, David Silva, Andres Iniesta and Sergio Busquets.

Some of the energy and hunger missing in recent tournaments has been added by the likes of David de Gea, Koke, Isco, Thiago Alcantara and Alvaro Morata who plug the gaps left by Iker Casillas, Carles Puyol, Xavi and Xabi Alonso.

Morata’s stunning start to life at Chelsea has also eased a long-running void up front since David Villa and Fernando Torres were at their peak.

Villa, now 35 and plying his trade with New York City in Major League Soccer, was even recalled to the squad for the demolition of Italy two months ago.

Sometimes in the glory years Spain would line up without a recognised striker, and in this qualifying campaign the goals again flowed from a richly talented midfield.

David Silva is now Spain’s fourth highest goalscorer of all-time with 11 in 15 matches, whilst Isco has netted six goals in his last nine caps.

Spain may have to do it the hard way in Russia. Their seeding in pot two means the likes of Brazil, Germany or France could be waiting in the group stages.

“We know we’ll get a big team for sure,” added Lopetegui. “All the seeded teams are dangerous.

“We take what comes with confidence, believing in ourselves.”

Without doubt a revitalised Spain will be the lower seeded side others most want to avoid on Friday.

Provided by AFP Sport

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