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Wednesday, August 15

France

World Cup

World Cup preview: France

Ahead of this summer's World Cup in Russia, Sports Mole previews the chances of Euro 2016 runners-up France, 20 years on from lifting the trophy on home soil.

France will arrive in Russia for this summer's World Cup as one of the favourites to go all the way and lift the trophy.

The pain of losing the Euro 2016 final on home soil to Portugal will still be fresh in the minds for many of their squad, which possesses some of the world's best talents and a frightening level of strength in depth.

It is 20 years since France's greatest moment of winning the 1998 World Cup as hosts, and the likes of Paul Pogba, Antoine Griezmann and Kylian Mbappe will be dreaming of replicating those heroes this summer.

Whether they can live up to the golden generation of Zinedine Zidane, Thierry Henry and Lilian Thuram remains to be seen, but there will be plenty of people backing Les Bleus to be celebrating on July 15.

Here, Sports Mole looks at their chances for the upcoming tournament in Russia.


GROUP

France have been handed a relatively kind draw in the group stages, with Australia, Peru and Denmark expected to battle it out for second place behind Didier Deschamps's side.

Les Bleus are the only team in their group who did not require a playoff match to reach the tournament, and it would take a fairly major surprise along the way if they were to be denied a perfect record in the group stages.

France will begin their campaign against Australia before taking on Peru and Denmark, with top spot expected to be enough for them to avoid Argentina in the first knockout round.

FRANCE FIXTURES

June 16: France vs. Australia (11am, Kazan Arena, Kazan)
June 21: France vs. Peru (4pm, Central Stadium, Yekaterinburg)
June 26: Denmark vs. France (3pm, Luzhniki Stadium, Moscow)


HOW THEY QUALIFIED

France's qualifying campaign was not without its troubles, and a goalless draw away to Belarus in their very first outing suggested that there could be signs of a Euro 2016 hangover.

However, four successive wins followed - including crucial victories against closest challengers Netherlands and Sweden - before they were beaten late in Stockholm for their solitary defeat.

Les Bleus bounced back from that with a resounding 4-0 win over Netherlands, though, and a while another goalless stalemate saw them drop unexpected points - this time at home to minnows Luxembourg - they saw themselves over the line as group winners with victories over Bulgaria and Belarus.

Only three of their seven qualifying wins came by a margin of more than one goal, though, and while they finished four points clear of both Sweden and Netherlands in Group A, there is a feeling that they will need to significantly improve if they are to make it far in this summer's tournament.


RECENT FORM

France will head to Russia having lost just one of their last 12 matches stretching back more than a year, but there have been one or two questionable results which will prevent supporters from getting too carried away.

Chief among those was a 3-2 defeat at home to Colombia in March - which saw them throw away a two-goal lead - and a 1-1 draw against USA in their final warm-up friendly as Kylian Mbappe's 78th-minute strike rescued the stalemate for the hosts.

France did string together a three-match winning streak between those two results, though, overcoming Russia in Saint Petersburg in March before victories over Republic of Ireland and Italy more recently.

Les Bleus also recorded a 2-2 draw away to Germany in November, when they were only denied victory over the world champions by a stoppage-time equaliser.


SQUAD

Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Steve Mandanda (Marseille), Alphonse Areola (Paris St-Germain).

Defenders: Lucas Hernandez (Atletico Madrid), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris St-Germain), Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City), Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart), Adil Rami (Marseille), Djibril Sidibe (Monaco), Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), Raphael Varane (Real Madrid).

Midfielders: N'Golo Kante (Chelsea), Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), Steven N'Zonzi (Sevilla), Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich).

Forwards: Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Nabil Fekir (Lyon), Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Thomas Lemar (Monaco), Kylian Mbappe (Paris St-Germain), Florian Thauvin (Marseille).


STAR PLAYER - Antoine Griezmann

Pogba may have been the poster boy for Euro 2016, with the midfielder's face splashed across billboards around Paris, yet Griezmann was the man who ended the tournament as France's best performer.

The Atletico Madrid striker ended the competition on home soil as Les Bleus' top scorer, finding the net six times in all and setting up a further two goals to leave a big mark on his second major international tournament.

Griezmann was crowned the Player of the Tournament for his impressive displays, and on the back of his brace in Atletico's 3-0 Europa League final win against Lyon last month the 27-year-old will be hoping to shine once again.

Questions remain over what formation Deschamps will go with in Russia, but adapting his side to get the best out of the Barcelona target - possibly by using Olivier Giroud alongside him in a 4-4-2 - will be key to France's hopes of success on the world stage.


MANAGER - Didier Deschamps

Having enjoyed a distinguished playing career which saw him win 103 caps for his country and captain them to glory at the 1998 World Cup and 2000 European Championship, Deschamps took over as manager of Les Bleus in 2012.

During his six years at the helm the former defensive midfielder has helped to mend what had become a broken setup at the 2010 World Cup, and almost led France back to silverware on home soil as they finished runners-up in Euro 2016.

Deschamps will have the chance to continue to nurture the wealth of young talent at his disposal having been handed a contract extension until 2020, and this summer he will be looking to become only the second person - after Franz Beckenbauer - to have won the World Cup as both a captain and a manager.

Prior to his appointment as France boss Deschamps spent time in charge of Monaco, Juventus and Marseille, during which time he won eight trophies and reached the 2004 Champions League final.


WORLD CUP RECORD

Best finish: Winners (1998)

The 1998 World Cup was an unforgettable occasion for French football, with the success of Zidane, Deschamps et al significant for cultural reasons as well as sporting ones.

A controversy-ridden 3-0 win over Brazil in the final followed victories over the likes of Croatia, Italy and Paraguay earlier in the tournament, and it is worth noting that they were also drawn alongside Denmark in the group stages on that occasion.

France were back in the final again eight years later, but while Zidane made headlines with the use of his forehead for the right reasons in 1998, this time it was for the wrong reasons as his infamous headbutt on Marco Materazzi saw his glittering career end with a World Cup final red card which preceded France losing on penalties.

Les Bleus have only reached the final on those two occasions, but they also made the semis in three other tournaments, finishing third in the Just Fontaine-inspired 1958 World Cup and in 1986, and fourth in 1982.

Two of the last four tournaments have seen France eliminated in the group stages, although four years ago in Brazil they made it to the quarter-finals, where they were knocked out by eventual champions Germany.


PREDICTION

France have the ability to go all the way this summer, and they should have little trouble in getting out of their group as winners to start with.

Our prediction sees them face Nigeria in the last 16 - a match they would be expected to win - before coming up against Uruguay in the quarter-finals, undoubtedly their toughest test up to that point.

However, we expect Les Bleus to make it to at least the semi-finals, where they could face Brazil in a repeat of the 1998 final. That is a match which could go either way, but performances in the build-up to the tournament just give Brazil the edge.

VERDICT: Semi-finals

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