Aaron Mooy and Man United's Paul Pogba two of the players to watch as France take on Australia

Alex Broun 15/06/2018
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Aaron Mooy will need to perform for the Socceroos.

The Socceroos meet France in an enticing Group C opener in Kazan at UAE: 14:00 on Saturday with much on the line for both teams.

For Australia, drawn in another group of death like 2014, they must escape with a point if they are to have any chance of reaching the knockout stages.

While for France, one of the pre-tournament favourites, they need a winning start to calm nerves and soothe expectations back home. A poor result for Les Bleus and the seeds of doubt and negativity are sure to surface.

Here’s a rundown of some of the key players for both teams – the cut-price Aussies vs the blue-riband France.

AARON MOOY V PAUL POGBA

Huddersfield playmaker Aaron Mooy has a lot of pressure on him as the Socceroos face up to France. Not only must he deal with the potent threat of Les Blues’ front six, but he must try to find a way through the back four with the tireless N’Golo Kante providing a front screen.

In front of him Mooy will have Andrew Nabbout, Robbie Kruse and occasionally Matthew Leckie running into space but he will need to thread the eye of the thinnest needle with his passes.

Mooy also must try to close down the space to Paul Pogba because if he gives the France impresario time on the ball, the Socceroos will have a very long afternoon.

As for Pogba, the mercurial Manchester United man, France fans will wonder who they will be getting – the sullen star who wanders around for 60 minutes before being substituted or the prowling predator, lurking on the edges of the box ready to pounce with a stunning strike or deadly assist to kill off Australian hopes.

Pogba had six goals and ten assists this season in the Premier League with on average 2.8 shots per game, 1.4 key passes, 2.8 dribbles and 1.9 aerial duels won.

But he accumulates such eye-catching statistics in clusters, with consistency one of his major issues.

TRENT SAINSBURY  v SAMUEL UMTITI

With regular captain, and Aussie legend, Mile Jedinak set to be omitted by coach Bert van Marwijk, defender Trent Sainsbury looks to be handed the burden of captaincy.

Sainsbury has perhaps the hardest task of any Socceroo.

France’s front three of Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann, PSG’s Kylian Mbappe and Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele would give most defenders in the Champions League nightmares, let alone the Swiss Super League where Sainsbury plies his trade for Grasshopper Zurich.

The 26-year-old had a very disrupted seasons for the Grasshoppers, who finished second last in the Super League just avoiding relegation, playing only nine games in which he received four yellow cards.

But now he must marshal his no-name back four of Western Sydney Wanderer Josh Risdon, the veteran Mark Milligan (who plays for Al Ahli in Saudi Arabia) and Aziz Behich from Bursaspor in Turkey.

Sainsbury’s leadership will be crucial if Van Marwijk’s side has any chance of an upset – or more realistically to keep the score under the 6-0 embarrassment last time these two sides met in 2013.

For France, Barcelona’s Samuel Umtiti is expected to have a far less demanding task against the Socceroos’ lone striker Nabbout from Urawa Red Diamonds in the J-League, with Kruse playing in behind him.

The 24-year-old, freshly signed to a new contract at Barca, has an average of two tackles and 1.5 interceptions per game in La Liga while he makes 2.8 clearances and 0.7 blocks according to whoscored.com.

If Australia are able to mount any serious challenges Umtiti and his defensive colleagues Benjamin Pavard from Stuttgart, Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane and Lucas Hernandez of Atletico Madrid are fully equipped to snuff them out.

Hugo Lloris needs to eliminate mistakes.

Hugo Lloris needs to eliminate mistakes.

MAT RYAN v HUGO LLORIS

Perhaps curious to pick out keepers as players to watch but the France stopper and captain Hugo Lloris has been in patchy form recently while Mat Ryan for the Socceroos is sure to have a very busy day.

Ryan, the man between the sticks for Brighton in the Premier League, conceded 54 goals during the season with ten clean sheets while Lloris at Tottenham conceded just 36 goals with 16 clean sheets.

This of course has something to do with the people in front of them and the Spurs back four is far superior to the Seagulls.

For Ryan, Russia 2018 is about redemption. At Brazil 2014, the then 22-year-old leaked a combined total of nine goals against Chile, the Netherlands and Spain in that year’s group of death.

Ryan later admitted he could have done better on a few of the goals but he had only recently replaced veteran keeper Mark Schwarzer, who had been in goal for the Socceroos since 2006, and had announced his international retirement just seven months earlier.

Lloris, 31, is four years older than any other player in the expected Les Bleus line-up for the opening match (Griezmann is the next oldest at 27) and as captain he would be expected to calm the nerves of his younger team-mates.

But it may be the keeper who needs reassurance. By his usual high standards Lloris has had a few uncharacteristic bloopers of late, including being badly beaten at his near post in France’s last friendly before the World Cup against the USA, which Les Bleus drew 1-1.

He also made a shocking error in qualification against Sweden with a poor clearance gifting Ola Toivonen a 93rd minute winner.

France cannot afford many similar errors in the World Cup.

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Watch: Ronaldo reveals the backstory on his famous 2002 haircut at the World Cup

Copa90 15/06/2018
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Ronaldo at the 2002 World Cup.

One of the more memorable pop culture moments from the World Cup was Ronaldo’s famous haircut in 2002.

The Brazilian legend revealed a haircut which had his head completely shaven, except for a patch near his forehead.

As it turns out, that haircut was more than fashion statement. Apparently, the haircut drew attention away from an injury Ronaldo was dealing with.

“Everybody was talking about the hair and forgot about the injury, so that helped me a lot in that time,” Ronaldo said.

Watch the video below, provided by COPA90, to see Ronaldo talk more about his 2002 look.

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John Obi Mikel needs to be the stern headmaster to keep youthful Nigeria in line

Matt Jones 15/06/2018
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Croatia and Nigeria – both playing for second place behind Group D behemoths Argentina the critics would have you believe.

But both will have designs on top spot, as La Albiceleste have their flaws outside a formidable frontline and possess the tournament’s best player in Lionel Messi.

It’s a mix of contrasting styles in Kaliningrad, with the might of Croatia’s majestic midfield coming up against an energetic and excitable Nigeria squad who are the youngest at the tournament.

Below, we look at three key players for each team. 

JOHN OBI MIKEL V IVAN RAKITIC

Rakitic

What Gernot Rohr wouldn’t give to deal with the worries facing counterpart Zlatko Dalic – trying to fit a plethora of creative geniuses into 11 starting spots.

Real Madrid’s Mateo Kovacic won’t even start the tournament while Marcelo Brozovic has to operate in the shadows of Luke Modric and Ivan Rakitic.

Despite being blessed by Modric and Rakitic, many Croatia managers have found themselves cursing their inability to find room for both to flourish on the international stage.

Dalic made a bold move after taking charge in October last year – taking the Real Madrid schemer out of his deep-lying midfield role and thrusting him into the playmaking No10 spotlight.

Removing him and keeping the Barcelona maestro in the anchoring duo in a 4-2-3-1 formation may have seemed catastrophic fans but it worked to perfection, with a qualifying campaign in danger of steering off course by Dalic’s bold move and two wins and a draw in his first three games securing passage to Russia.

Nigeria captain John Obi Mikel, meanwhile, has a pivotal role to play for his side, and not simply because he is the man with the armband.

The Super Eagles are blessed with skill, pace and youthful exuberance in abundance, but they have a super young squad – the youngest of all 32 nations in Russia.

And that will be a worry for their fans, and particularly Mikel, who may well feel like a schoolteacher at this tournament – hurriedly and nervously supervising this young cohort through a class trip to a museum, making sure an unruly rabble don’t break anything expensive.

The former Chelsea man has won 85 caps – 13 more than anyone else. Only Ahmed Musa (72), Elderson Echiejile (62) and Ogenyi Onazi (52) come close.

Six of his colleagues have earned less than 10 caps, while 12 of the 23-man squad are 25 or under.

But Mikel can count on the experience gleaned from 11 campaigns in the Premier League with Chelsea, as well as forays into the Champions League.

He has also been to the World Cup before, in 2014, and featured in Nigeria teams that won the 2013 Africa Cup of Nations and the bronze medal at the 2016 Olympics.

MARIO MANDZUKIC V ODION IGHALO

17 06 2018 players mandzukic v ighalo

Vividly remembered for his titanic performances at Watford in his debut Premier League campaign in 2015/16, Odion Ighalo buzzed all too briefly for the Hornets.

He plundered 17 goals in 27 games the previous season as Watford earned promotion back to the top-flight after an eight-year hiatus.

And far from struggle to bridge the seismic gap in quality between England’s top two tiers, the former Granada goal-getter thrived at the elite level – netting an impressive 15 league goals in 37 games to finish as the Premier League’s joint sixth highest scorer as Quique Sanchez Flores led Watford to a respectable 13th-placed finish.

Ighalo failed to live up to iconic status a year later, however, scoring a miserly one goal in 18 outings. He is now plying his trade in China with Changchun Yatai, for whom he has bagged seven goals in 11 games this term.

That glut of goals in his maiden Premier League campaign led to international recognition but he has hardly soared for the Super Eagles, only netting four goals in 19 appearances.

Kelechi Iheanacho has eight goals in one less game, but the burly Ighalo is likely to be preferred as the lone striker by Rohr to pose problems for a less than stellar Croatia defence.

The tip of the spear for the Europeans will be the unflappable Mario Mandzukic, who while not a prolific goalscorer himself, is a scorer of big goals – six of Croatia’s 15 in qualifying were claimed by the big Juventus frontman.

Mandzukic is a tenacious workhorse of a player – a rare commodity among modern strikers. He plays at such a tempo that even if he’s not putting the ball in the back of the net, he causes headaches for defences, with his intelligent and tireless running.

An adroit forward adept at playing anywhere across the front, the amount of effort he puts in is incredible.

IVAN PERISIC V ALEX IWOBI

Iwobi

Coveted by Jose Mourinho at Manchester United last summer, Ivan Perisic didn’t quite grab the limelight as much this season – either domestically or internationally.

He scored 11 goals for Inter Milan – the same figure as a year ago for the Nerazzurri – but he endured a frosty relationship with his employers after they reportedly refused to sell him to the Red Devils.

His form has also tailed off somewhat internationally too. He starred as Croatia’s top goalscorer during Euro 2016 qualifying, with six goals in nine games, as well as two goals at the tournament itself, including the winner as Croatia secured passage to the knockouts with a famous 2-1 win over Spain.

In World Cup qualifying he’s had a less telling impact – just two goals in 10 games.

But he notched in the final friendly against Senegal and there’s no threat to his starting place for this game – with his incisive and ceaseless forays down the channels sure to keep the Nigeria full-backs busy.

Having represented England at various youth levels, Alex Iwobi decided his senior future lay with the country of his birth, launching his international career with the Super Eagles in 2015.

And he’s settled in nicely to life on the globe’s grand stage – netting five goals in his first 19 appearances.

The Arsenal man has nearly as many goals for country as he does for club – bagging a paltry nine in 98 matches in what has been a sporadic start to life as a Gunner.

Whereas he flits in and out of the Arsenal team, he is an integral part of this vibrant young Nigeria side, who will be keen to make an impact in Russia and reach the last 16 for the second tournament in a row.

Iwobi was twice on the scoresheet as Nigeria defeated Argentina – the two sides will face each other for real here – 4-2 in a friendly last year.

Football and success runs in the family for the 22-year-old, the nephew of former Super Eagles star Jay-Jay Okocha, part of the Nigeria side that won Olympic gold in 1996.

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