PARIS (AP) — France has options, too many perhaps. Especially up front where the dilemma is who to leave out at the World Cup.
And that’s without Real Madrid forward Karim Benzema, a four-time Champions League winner once again overlooked by coach Didier Deschamps.
How other national coaches must envy Deschamps, who has a forward department bursting with skill and speed and goals. Fans will be unforgiving if he doesn’t get the most out of the finest collection of attacking talent France has enjoyed in a tournament.
France has outstanding players elsewhere, including Hugo Lloris in goal, Raphael Varane in defense and Paul Pogba in midfield. However, France still concedes soft goals and coping with the pressure of expectation remains a problem.
Deschamps is six years into the job and has had long enough to find the right balance. Fans will be optimistic he can do so, on the 20th anniversary of France’s only World Cup triumph.
Topping Group C will give France momentum, with only Denmark a serious threat. But a second-place group finish could see doubts creeping back in.
Here’s a closer look at the France team:
After the disappointment of losing the European Championship final at home to Portugal two years ago, Deschamps has a settled squad with experience and excitement. Given the talent at his disposal, French fans expect at least a semifinal place in Russia. With a contract until 2020, Deschamps has the chance to emulate his achievements as France’s captain when Les Bleus won the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000.
With 97 caps, Hugo Lloris is the undisputed first choice, and has been for many years. He remains as agile as ever on his line and unflappable on crosses. However, Lloris has made a couple of errors for Tottenham and France during the past season, letting in a very sloppy goal against Colombia and getting lobbed from the halfway line against Sweden during qualifying. More recently, Lloris was also at fault for Italy’s goal in a 3-1 win. Backup Steve Mandanda has made 26 appearances for France and is a fine shot-stopper, but is prone to big lapses in concentration. Alphonse Areola could pressure him for the No. 2 spot following a good season with Paris Saint-Germain.
It would have been a serious headache for Deschamps to choose between Raphael Varane, Laurent Koscielny and Samuel Umtiti for his center half pairing. That was solved in unfortunate circumstances when Koscielny was seriously injured, rupturing his Achilles playing for Arsenal in May. Barring further mishap, Varane-Umtiti will be France’s first-choice pairing. Varane recently won his third Champions League title with Real Madrid. His pace and reading of the game are crucial. Umtiti is stronger on man-to-man marking and also quick. He has excelled for Barcelona this season. With Koscielny out, Deschamps drafted in veteran center half Adil Rami as backup.
As usual, all eyes will be on Paul Pogba. This is his chance to end the debate as to whether he is truly world class by leading France to victory. He’s had a difficult season for Manchester United, however, with coach Jose Mourinho losing patience. But Deschamps remains fiercely loyal and protective of Pogba, even though he has yet to fully repay his manager’s faith in him. Pogba’s lack of tactical discipline sees him often pushing up too much when Deschamps prefers him to stay back more. N’Golo Kante is a sure starter in the holding role. Blaise Matuidi’s consistent season with Juventus may be enough to earn him a place alongside Pogba and Kante. Bayern Munich’s Corentin Tolisso provides excellent backup with sure passing and an eye for goal. Dimitri Payet shone at times during Euro 2016, but missed out this time after getting injured playing for Marseille in the Europa League final.
Expect nothing different here in terms of who starts. Deschamps will go with his trusted partnership of Antoine Griezmann and Olivier Giroud. It just depends what formation he chooses. In a 4-4-2, he can use both as his center forwards and complement them with the scorching pace of 19-year-old Kylian Mbappe down the right flank. A 4-3-3 also suits the same trio, albeit with Giroud in the lone central striker’s role and the other two switching and rotating around him. Griezmann’s elusive movement and superb touch are vital to ensuring a high tempo. With 30 goals, the consistent Giroud is equal fourth on France’s all-time list. Barcelona’s Ousmane Dembele, the third most expensive player in the world behind Mbappe and Neymar, gives Deschamps another exquisite option. Dembele is even quicker than Mbappe, which takes some believing. Deschamps left out Arsenal’s Alexandre Lacazette, Bayern Munich’s Kingsley Coman, Manchester United’s Anthony Martial — and, of course, Benzema — underlining further the depth of talent available to him.
France will be based on the outskirts of Moscow in Istra and opens on June 16 against Australia in Kazan. It then faces Peru on June 21 and Denmark on June 26 for a likely group decider in Moscow.
Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Steve Mandanda (Marseille), Alphonse Areola (Paris Saint-Germain)
Defenders: Djibril Sidibe (Monaco), Benjamin Pavard (Stuttgart), Samuel Umtiti (Barcelona), Raphael Varane (Real Madrid), Presnel Kimpembe (Paris Saint-Germain), Adil Rami (Marseille), Benjamin Mendy (Manchester City), Lucas Hernandez (Atletico Madrid)
Midfielders: Paul Pogba (Manchester United), Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich), Blaise Matuidi (Juventus), N’Golo Kante (Chelsea), Steven N’Zonzi (Sevilla), Thomas Lemar (Monaco)
Forwards: Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Olivier Giroud (Chelsea), Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Florian Thauvin (Marseille), Nabil Fekir (Lyon)
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Jerome Pugmire on Twitter: www.twitter.com/jeromepugmire