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As part of our World Cup coverage, we have interviewed journalists, correspondents, experts & writers representing each of the 32 countries to give you, the readers, a better understanding of the 32 nations participating in the 2014 FIFA World Cup. Here are the list of interviewees.
For this interview, focusing on France, we spoke to Jonathan Johsnon, French football journalist with ESPNFC, beINSPORTS, Bleacher Report, French Football Weekly, and PSG TV. Follow him on Twitter @Jon_LeGossip
France have had a tendency to have conflicting World Cup runs one after the other, a 1998 winning run was followed by a group stage exit, a 2006 runners-up run was followed by another exit at the first stage. But can this France side, which struggled to even qualify, really pose a huge threat on the tournament?
Anything is possible now after they came back from the dead in the play-offs against Ukraine. The confidence that this aggregate result has created should not be underestimated. Yes they are missing Samir Nasri – a very talented player – but the 23-man squad selected by coach Didier Deschamps looks to have been picked deliberately to create the strongest possible collective, even though some individual talents have been left out. If the group can come together and show a strong sense of unity in Brazil, they can go far. There is still plenty of quality in the squad without Nasri. A wave of euphoria swept France in the wake of their win over Ukraine and, if the French public see that Les Bleus have put the controversies of the past behind them in South America, then public support will become more and more fervent as the team go deeper in the competition. A strong start will be crucial for Deschamps and his side, after that they will start to believe.
France usually implement a high-line approach in defence; this would also require Hugo Lloris to play as a sweeper keeper. Admittedly, he did this at Spurs as well but wasn’t the most comfortable. Can you see this becoming a problem for the side?
No, it won’t be a problem. Since the win over Ukraine, France have stumbled on a new style. Perhaps it is partly thanks to the influence that Paris Saint-Germain’s success this season has had on French football, but Les Tricolores will now likely play with a 4-3-3 formation in Brazil. During the qualifying group stages and the first leg of the play-off with Ukraine, France were playing a 4-2-3-1. This has been dispensed with because it was too ineffective. As a result, the 4-3-3 makes everybody’s roles on the pitch simple. Much of the emphasis is now on the midfield three of Yohan Cabaye, Blaise Matuidi and Paul Pogba. The full-backs are expected to provide width, while the central defenders stop anything from getting through. Lloris won’t be required to spend too much time with the ball at his feet, but the big concern is whether or not he will be too isolated to adequately influence his teammates as captain.
Frank Ribery is currently at the peak of his career. This will be the last World Cup he has a significant impact on. How important is he to France’s game? Can you see Antoine Griezmann take as important a role as the Bayern Munich winger?
Ribery’s loss of form since the start of 2014 is quite concerning for France. Last year, he was in incredible form with Bayern Munich and fans of Les Bleus were expecting his to become the talisman of this side. Now the emphasis is on Karim Benzema because of his good form with Real Madrid and his recent encouraging performances at international level. I can see Antoine Griezmann going on to play a similar role to Ribery for France in the future, but French fans will hope that he is more decisive for them in the big games. Ribery’s poor performances with the national team have been one of his greatest failings. His time to really lead this side by example may have passed now. Griezmann might feature more than we think at this World Cup, but it will likely be on the right of the front three instead of Mathieu Valbuena.
Karim Benzema has had a successful domestic season, and is expected to lead the line for Les Blues once again. But are you concerned about the lack of options up-front in the lone strikers’ role having seen the squad that has been announced?
Yes. The general lack of depth in this position is concerning, especially when you see the likes of Olivier Giroud struggling with Arsenal recently. Benzema has been excellent for Real Madrid this season, but when he plays for France he is not the same player. Deschamps has taken few central options, although there is plenty of quality out wide, this likely means that only one of Benzema and Giroud will play at a time and we are not likely to see them together in attack. Unfortunately, players like Kevin Gameiro came into good form too late in the season. The Sevilla man could have been a part of this squad, but his lack of opportunities while at PSG put paid to his hopes. Benzema will lead the line with Giroud in reserve and Remy either out wide or also as a backup player. Everywhere else there is an enviable level of depth, but at present there are few international quality French strikers.
The likely midfield duo for France will be Blaise Matuidi & Paul Pogba, a mouth-watering partnership on paper. What sort of impact do you expect the two to have this tournament?
I think that midfield duo will actually be a midfield trio after Yohan Cabaye’s excellent performance against Ukraine. Since then, Deschamps appears to have decided that a 4-3-3 formation is the way to go and the system worked well in the recent 2-0 friendly win over the Netherlands at Stade de France. Together with Matuidi and Pogba, I expect France’s midfield to be one of the most formidable at this World Cup. If they can replicate the same sort of possession-based dominance that PSG enjoy in Ligue 1, then I think Les Bleus will be very difficult to beat. Matuidi and Pogba are two of the most important components in this new-look France side and both are primed to have a big impact on this tournament. Pogba is a precocious talent and has developed phenomenally well with Juventus, while Matuidi has been one of PSG’s best players for the past two seasons and is extremely consistent at international level as well. Both players complement Cabaye well and I think that all three can help France reach the latter stages.
We at Outside of the Boot track the progress of youngsters under our Talent Radar feature. We’ve focused on Paul Pogba but do you think Raphael Varane will play a regular part in the side, despite his injury concerns? Was it a bit strange that the likes of Aymeric Laporte & Samuel Umtiti didn’t make it instead, despite having successful seasons?
Varane is an important member of the team already and will be for some time to come. Yes his injuries are a concern, but he has already shown remarkable maturity in his early performances for Les Bleus and is expected to continue to develop into one of the best defenders in world football. Aymeric Laporte and Samuel Umtiti being left out was not a surprise, both are still very young and the French have a wealth of current and future talent in this position. Both will get their chance – likely before Euro 2016 on home soil – but this World Cup has come too soon for them. Deschamps has already identified the players that he hopes will be key figures in 2016 and once the World Cup is over, he will look to add more talents to his group at the expense of some of the older or less efficient members of the squad.
France were nearly not going to feature in Brazil but they have got through and must count their blessings for having got a comparatively safer group. Everyone is expecting France to make it through. Surely they won’t disappoint? How far can they realistically go?
Yes, everybody in France was extremely relieved that Les Bleus will be in Brazil. However, the close call against Ukraine was also the shock that Deschamps’ side needed. The circumstances forced the French to rediscover their winning mentality – something that is common with their World Cup sides of the past – and the team is now riding on the crest of a wave of optimism heading towards South America. This reinvigorated attitude means that expectations are low, although the team is expected to advance from its group, but the supporters appear to once again be well and truly behind their team. I think that the quarterfinals are the best that France can hope for this time around and that if they get there, it will be viewed as excellent progress. The big goal for Les Tricolores is to win Euro 2016 on home soil and this summer’s World Cup is the perfect preparation. If France start well and top their favourable group, then anything can happen. An early setback though and the newfound togetherness displayed after the victory over Ukraine will be thoroughly tested.