Who, if anyone, will prevail in Group C’s intriguing curtain-raiser on Saturday morning? The answer might not be as straightforward as it looks.
From their four previous meetings, France have won twice, drawn one and lost once against Saturday’s opposition. Perhaps the most worrying thing from Australia’s perspective is the fact a thumping 6-0 defeat was their most recent meeting, back in 2013.
However, there is encouragement amidst their worries. Qualification for this year’s tournament was the most difficult they have faced. More matches, various tests, from which the Socceroos have come through unscathed. A 3-1 aggregate victory over Honduras was enough for Australia to book their spot to Russia. Bert van Marwijk’s side will embrace the underdog tag once more this summer.
France, who many have tipped to win the competition, go into this game as overwhelming favourites but it’ll get easier for Australia. They will be quietly bullish about their chances of snatching a result here before playing both Denmark and Peru, winnable fixtures, to finish Group C and progress.
FIFA Ranking: 7th
People often say the first match at an international tournament is the most important for a number of reasons. Mainly, it allows sides to start as they mean to go on deeper into the competition. This sentiment could not be truer for France, who have struggled to establish themselves in recent World Cup tournaments. Their 3-0 win over Honduras in 2014 was the first time they’d won their opening group fixture since 1998 when they claimed their only triumph in the competition.
Didier Deschamps’ preference for a 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 variant allows balance between midfield protectors and his more attack-minded players to shine, but it’s always been a question of personnel chosen rather than system that has drawn criticism. N’Golo Kanté is widely regarded as one of the world’s best defensive midfielders and should start alongside Blaise Matuidi. The pair breaks up play efficiently and start counter-attacks with speed, too.
Paul Pogba was voted the Best Young Player in Brazil four years ago. It’s important his performances set the tone for team-mates to follow. He’s not the only star in a fantastic show of squad depth. Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé are expected to flourish as Les Bleus’ attacking trio, but the Manchester United no.6 has shown the capability to inspire and lead by example.
FIFA Ranking: 36th
Since booking their ticket to Russia, Australia have been in good form. The Socceroos chalked up morale-boosting victories ahead of the tournament too. Wins over the Czech Republic and Hungary earlier this month must do their confidence a world of good. They have only lost once in nine previous fixtures.
A credible goalless draw against Colombia in March justifies their ability to mix it with better sides, though you’d be naive for expecting them to adopt an attacking approach given the quality of opposition.
Since Bert took charge in January, he has been trialling formations and utilising different players to examine where the Aussie’s strengths and weaknesses lie thoroughly. A 4-3-3 or 4-2-3-1 were most common, but Marwijk’s difficulty is accommodating everyone given his best players occupy midfield positions. Aston Villa’s d-mid Mile Jedinak, Celtic playmaker Tom Rogic, Huddersfield ace Aaron Mooy, and more besides.
Tim Cahill, who netted a team-high 11 goals in qualifying, has only played 160 minutes of competitive football this season. He’s 38-years-old. Lack of match sharpness doesn’t warrant more than a role off the substitutes’ bench. On the other hand, wunderkind Daniel Arzani has been tipped for great things. What better way to announce yourself to the world than at football’s showpiece event?
Although the opening exchanges are likely to be tense and unpredictable, it’s difficult to look past France winning this game. They were comfortable victors over Italy on June 1, but then Kylian Mbappé spared their blushes when his goal earned a 1-1 draw against the US last weekend.
Mbappe has shown quality and promise aplenty at only 19. He is expected to play an integral role in France’s success.
Australia should be determined, focused and organised, especially with a coach like Van Marwijk, who took the Dutch to the World Cup final back in 2010. This could be interesting.