Didier Deschamps' embarrassment of French riches divides opinion
While some absences have been enforced, selection of players such as Giroud in France's World Cup squad ahead of Benzema and Martial have not been well received by supporters of Les Bleus
What chance would you give a team with these credentials of winning the World Cup? It would have full-backs from Barcelona and Paris Saint-Germain, plus two central defenders from Manchester City, all clubs fresh from bullish, title-winning campaigns. Midfield could be anchored by another PSG stalwart, and lent its guile by the player with most assists in European football this year.
On the flanks, there would be savvy and speed from two Bayern Munich stars, bearing their latest Bundesliga medals, and up front a young man from Manchester United who was not so long ago their costliest teenager. His partner? The Real Madrid centre-forward who now has four European Cups, and scored in the latest final and the semi.
Put names to that outfield 10, and it reads: Digne, Kurzawa, Mangala, Laporte; Rabiot, with the 2018 king of assists Dmitri Payet; Ribery, Coman, Martial and Benzema. And none of them made the France World Cup squad. OK, you might regard the defence as a little middleweight but any country that can live without the attacking talent possessed by the likes of Dimitri Payet, Franck Ribery and Karim Benzema – the latter two having fallen out with the French hierarchy – and of Anthony Martial and Kingsley Coman – who simply did not make the cut – must be a strong position.
Didier Deschamps, the France manager, has agonised over many of his choices for the 23 to take to his second World Cup in charge of Les Bleus, and knows there are many in France who regard his current set of resources as stronger even than the group of players he won the World Cup alongside, as captain, 20 summers ago. He has looked for balance, some flexibility and, if he regrets the late season injury setbacks to defender Laurent Koscielny and the mercurial Payet that made them hard to call up, he knows that, should France fall short of at least a stylish semi-final at the World Cup, he will be accused of squandering France's deep talent pool.
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France have a prestigious warm-up game on Friday in Nice, Italy the visitors in a fixture resonant of triumphs and near-misses in the recent past. Les Bleus beat the Azzurri on penalties on the way to their 1998 World Cup win; defeated them again to win the final of the European Championship two years later, and lost a World Cup final to the Italians via spot-kicks in 2006. None of those scenarios will be repeated in Russia, because Italy will not be there.
There is still an edge to the Nice meeting, though, with Roberto Mancini, Italy’s new manager, establishing his authority and ideas, and considerable local interest in the recalled Mario Balotelli, back in the Azzurri squad after a long absence and again in the city where he has enjoyed two happy seasons. His 43 goals in 66 Nice games are certainly an uplift from his barren spell at Liverpool, from whom Nice signed him.
There will be cheers this evening for Balotelli from some Nicois, although the likelihood is he will leave the French club this summer, out of contract. Quite what sort of reception awaits Olivier Giroud is another question. The Chelsea centre-forward, whose 31st goal for France on his 72nd international appearance, against Republic of Ireland on Monday equalled the great Zinedine Zidane’s goalscoring tally for France. Yet Giroud remains a contentious choice for some members of the French public. There were boos when his name was read out ahead of the Ireland game.
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At issue, the notion that Giroud’s place in France’s plans is at Benzema’s expense, although it seems certain Benzema will never again be selected by Deschamps, the manager and player having clashed in 2016, the relationship left permanently damaged. There is also criticism of Giroud’s style, pure target-man, and conspicuously different from the speed and technically sophisticated characteristics of his fellow strikers in Deschamps’ squad - Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Nabil Fekir and Florian Thauvin.
Mbappe, the PSG teenager, this week found himself having to stick up for Giroud, the 31 year old. “We have a striker who has scored as many goals for France as Zidane,” Mbappe said. “That has to be respected. Yes, Olivier is not always the most spectacular player, but he is so effective. He scores in almost every game for France these days, and he does the grubby work, defending, getting forward and scoring goals.”
Mbappe likes playing off Giroud, and the Chelsea forward has also been a fine foil for Griezmann, who is a certain starter for Deschamps. Whoever else lines up at kick off in Nice will take it as a pointer to the scheme Deschamps has in mind for France’s World Cup opener against Australia. “I cannot pick everyone,” shrugs the manager, "but it is nice to have so many good options.”
Updated: May 31, 2018 03:03 PM