France have delighted and disappointed in equal measure in recent World Cups so what will they serve up this year? Jnoathan Wilson takes a look at les Bleus’ 2014 vintage…
Is there any football nation so unpredictable as France? That they have enough high-class players – Franck Ribery, Karim Benzema, Hugo Lloris, Blaise Matuidi, Paul Pogba – is clear, but the question when deciding whether the 28.0available on them to the win the World Cup represents good value is which France will turn up: the one that plays to potential or the sulky self-defeaters who have disgraced two of the past three tournaments?
Having gone to the 2002 World Cup as champions and among the favourites, they were beaten by Senegal in the opening game, had Thierry Henry sent off in drawing with Uruguay in their second game and ensured an early returnhome as they lost 2-0 to Denmark in the final group game. In 2006, they started sluggishly, drawing with Switzerland and South Korea, but then, Zinedine Zidane recovering his from spectacularly, beat Spain, Brazil and Portugal in reaching the final. Last time, of course, they were incompetent on a remarkable scale, effectively going on strike as they went out in the first round.
Qualifying suggested that things were coming together – although slowly and fitfully. In a strange way, though, that may have helped France. The French public had grown increasingly disaffected with a team that seemed to represent the worst self-indulgences of the game: rich and demanding respect while seemingly doing little to deserve either their wealth of their sense of self-importance. There was anecdotal evidence that some in northern and eastern France were choosing to head over the border and associate themselves with the Belgium national side instead.
Things reached a nadir with the 2-0 defeat away to Ukraine in the first leg of the qualifying play-off. It was so bad – as France contemplated missing a first World Cup since 1994 – that everybody seemed simultaneously to decide to stop bickering and pull together.
Deschamps was ruthless and dropped Samir Nasri and Eric Abidal. The atmosphere at the Stade de France for the second leg was ferocious.
France romped to a 3-0 win and, somehow, finds itself approaching the World Cup with momentum. When it comes to World Cups, timing is everything, and France seem to be coming into form at just the right time – although that could all change if Ribery and Benzema are convicted over an alleged liaison with an underage prostitute.
The 4-3-3 with which Deschamps began the campaign has yielded to a 4-2-3-1 based around the holding midfield strength of Matuidi and Pogba, so France at least should be solid. With the likes of Nasri – if his mind is right, Ribery, Benzema, Mathie Valbuena and Loic Remy there should be enough creativity and punch to take advantage of a solid platform even if they revert to a more defensive mindset than they should against Ukraine.
Luck can play a part as well, and there can be no question that France were fortunate with the draw. Ecuador are probably the weakest of the Conmebol qualifiers. Felipe Caicedo had formed a fruitful partnership with Chucho Benitez but the death of the former Birmingham City striker has had a profound impact on the squad, both psychologically and in the loss of a very fine striker.Honduras were the third of the three Concacaf qualifiers, winning only one of five games away from home.
Switzerland, the seeds, pose the biggest obstacle to France topping the group but even they are a side of potential rather than achievement, arguably the weakest of the eight seeds. Just because France have such a history of shooting themselves in the foot and because morale may yet be fragile, it may be worth backing the Swiss to top Group E at 4.3100/30. If France did play to their ability then 1.76 for them to finish first isn’t stingy, but that doubt must always remain.
Even if they do stutter, though, it would take an astonishing collapse for them to finish behind Ecuador and Honduras, so backing the pair to finish first and second, and vice versa, inBetfair’s Straight Forecast – 3.6 with France top of the group, 6.4 with Switzerland top – may be the way to go.