France v Australia: Defending champions must overcome injury Bleus to start with a win

France were many people's tip heading into Qatar 2022, having been so impressive when they lifted the World Cup four years ago.

On paper, they have the sort of team that would have most players of the FIFA 23 video game drooling, or at least, they did before injuries started to pile up.

Midfield pair Paul Pogba and N'Golo Kante, both so crucial to their 2018 success, had already been ruled out, and in the days since head coach Didier Deschamps announced his squad, two more high-profile names have been forced to withdraw.

The loss of Christopher Nkunku was a blow despite the RB Leipzig forward being unlikely to start, his 48 goal involvements (37 goals and 11 assists) in 2022 only second to France team-mate Kylian Mbappe (57 - 43 goals and 14 assists) among players from Europe's top five leagues.

Then there was Karim Benzema's withdrawal, a significant one considering the 2022 Ballon d'Or winner scored a spectacular 44 goals in 46 games for Real Madrid in 2021-22, helping the Spanish giants win LaLiga and the Champions League.

However, if any nation can handle a double blow like that, it is surely France.

When it comes to the team selection in their opening clash with Australia, Deschamps will likely turn to the same trio he used at Russia 2018, with Mbappe alongside one or both of Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann.

Kylian Mbappe has been in fearsome form for Paris Saint-Germain
Kylian Mbappe has been in fearsome form for Paris Saint-Germain

Giroud has extra motivation, sitting just two behind Thierry Henry (51) as Les Bleus' all-time record goalscorer.

"Obviously I've got this target, this kind of bonus in my head to beat [Henry], but the main target as a team is to go as far as we can in the competition," the Milan striker said at a press conference on Friday.

France will need to improve on recent form though, having only won one of their six games in the UEFA Nations League in June and September (D2, L3).

Their first hurdle is an Australia team that only made it to Qatar by the skin of their teeth, needing a dramatic penalty shoot-out win against Peru in a play-off to advance.

Dancing substitute goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne was the hero that day, but head coach Graham Arnold will need inspiration from elsewhere if the Socceroos are to improve on their World Cup record.

They have been eliminated from the group stage in four of their five previous appearances, progressing only in 2006, when Arnold was assistant to Guus Hiddink.

Australia have won just 13 per cent of their matches at the World Cup (two of 16); only Bulgaria (12 per cent - three of 26) have a lower win rate among nations to play 10 or more games at the finals.

They have also suffered an injury blow of their own, with Martin Boyle pulling out after failing to recover from a knee problem. Melbourne City winger Marco Tilio has replaced him, and Arnold is backing the 21-year-old to step up.

"Marco has done everything that has been asked of him to be ready for this tournament," Arnold said. "He was an important member of our Tokyo 2020 Olympic team, he has started the A-League men's season well and he is familiar with the national team set-up and we are looking forward to what he can bring to our squad for the tournament."

 

PLAYERS TO WATCH

France - Kylian Mbappe

Losing players like Nkunku and Benzema is never a good thing, but the blow is softened when you can still turn to arguably the most electric attacker in world football.

Mbappe played a key role in France's World Cup success of 2018, scoring four goals in seven games in Russia. During the tournament, the young French star not only became his country's youngest ever goalscorer at a World Cup (19y 183d), but also, only the second teenager ever to score in a World Cup final after Brazilian icon Pele did so v Sweden in 1958.

He has also been near unstoppable for Paris Saint-Germain this season, with 19 goals in 20 games for the Ligue 1 giants.

Australia - Mat Ryan

Not just because Australia are likely to face a lot of shots against the world champions, but Ryan also brings experience that this side sorely need.

The former Valencia and Arsenal goalkeeper has not featured much for Copenhagen this season, with Kamil Grabara preferred, but he played all 11 of Australia's third and fourth-round matches in AFC qualifying for the World Cup.

Ryan is also set to appear in a third World Cup for Australia, the most of any goalkeeper for the nation. Should he feature in all three group games, he will move level with Mark Bresciano and Tim Cahill on nine World Cup appearances, the most for the Socceroos.

PREDICTION

Unsurprisingly, France are relatively overwhelming favourites to start with a win.

According to Stats Perform's AI model, Les Bleus have a 73.4 per cent chance of taking all three points, with Australia given just a 10.6 per cent chance.

The draw comes in at 16 per cent, which cannot be discounted given France's injuries and questionable form heading into Qatar.