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World Cup preview: Can France live up to its massive expectations?

Twenty years after France lifted its first and only World Cup, Les Bleus arrive in Russia among the tournament favourites, albeit with some question marks attached as Didier Deschamps’ lot hasn’t performed consistently since the Euro 2016 final defeat to Portugal.

Arguably the most stacked squad in the tournament, Les Blues are littered with world-class talents and emerging stars, though it’s up to Deschamps to get the most out of them. Lacking a defined style or on-pitch leader, the 3-2 home defeat to Colombia in March could prove to be the perfect microcosm of France’s shortcomings: plenty of pace and panache in attack undermined by worries about defensive cohesion.

This France squad is at least more balanced and dynamic than the Euro 2016 offering. Considering Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna were the starting full-backs against Portugal, the inclusion of the likes of Benjamin Mendy, Djibril Sidibe, and Benjamin Pavard is a massive upgrade – as is the growth of centre-halves Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane. With no fewer than two goals scored in each of its last seven matches, scoring won’t be France’s problem, and with an enhanced backline, there’s reason to believe that defensive lapses won’t be either.

Group schedule

Date Opponent Time
June 16 Australia 6:00 a.m. ET
June 21 Peru 11:00 a.m. ET
June 26 Denmark 10:00 a.m. ET

Projected starting XI

Deschamps entered the last two major tournaments with a 4-3-3 formation, though the former defensive midfielder could opt for a flat 4-4-2 against inferior opponents. In the above formation, Pavard may be slotted in over the attack-minded Sidibe, while the in-form Corentin Tolisso may be benched for the more experienced Blaise Matuidi. Thomas Lemar could also get the nod over Ousmane Dembele. If Deschamps selects a 4-4-2, expect Olivier Giroud to start up top as Tolisso/Matuidi are sacrificed.

Related: Full squad lists for each nation

Manager: Didier Deschamps

After captaining the 1998 World Cup-winning side as a player, the pressure is on Deschamps to replicate that display in Russia. Should he fail to do so, expect the rumours of Zinedine Zidane’s hiring to become inescapable.

Deschamps’ tactical versatility has merited praise, though there are concerns about the continuity of the squad and whether or not the gaffer knows what his best XI is. There’s also the risk that 49-year-old won’t get the most out of his best players. Paul Pogba is best suited alongside two other midfielders, and Antoine Griezmann operates at a higher level when paired with another forward like Giroud. Those are just two of the many variables Deschamps must consider.

Key player: Raphael Varane

“He is quick, talented, but I would like him to become a leader and the boss of this defence. Maybe he is too nice,” French legend Bixante Lizaruzu said of Real Madrid’s towering centre-back. Can a football general be an instinctively bashful individual? That is the question that the 25-year-old Verane carries with him to a third major tournament, but after a stellar campaign with Real Madrid, Varane’s doubters have become as reticent as the player himself. If France is going to win the World Cup, defensive organisation will be paramount, and Varane, alongside Samuel Umtiti, will be tasked with sorting out a side that lacks a vocal leader.

Breakout star: Benjamin Pavard

Amid a stacked squad, Stuttgart defender Pavard stands out. Capped on five occasions, the 22-year-old played mainly as a centre-back in Germany but lined up as a right-back in a tune-up victory over Italy. That versatility and composure on the ball, paired with Sidibe’s penchant for lung-busting runs forward that leave gaping holes at the back, could see Pavard play an influential role in Russia and potentially merit a big-money move away from the Bundesliga.

Fans should be happy if …

France wins the World Cup. Despite a pipeline rich with emerging talent, opportunities to lift major trophies are few and far between, and with his job on the line, few will know that better than Deschamps.

(Photos courtesy: Getty Images)

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