We turn our attention to Group C in the latest of our 2018 World Cup group-by-group previews – featuring France, Australia, Denmark and Peru.
Les Bleus will be the strong favourites to progress as winners, though they have a weird habit of self-combusting at World Cups. Denmark, Peru and Australia, meanwhile, will all feel like they could have the beating of each other if they’re on form.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 7th
Best World Cup Finish: Winners (1998)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Quarter-finals
One to Watch – Kylian Mbappe: France are blessed with a multitude of attacking options, but this could be the moment that Mbappe transitions from world class to living legend, a la Zinedine Zidane in 1998. The PSG forward knows how to handle pressure, having dealt with a €180m price tag last season, and the 19-year-old will be feeling confident of taking the World Cup by storm.
Expectation won’t bother him, and if Deschamps plays a system that allows Mbappe to flourish, then the former Monaco man will take care of the rest.
Verdict: Les Bleus will be expected to qualify from this group as winners, and with little fuss. Didier Deschamps’ side are comfortably the strongest side in the pool – even if the FIFA rankings suggest a tighter race – and seven points should be the bare minimum here.
That said, there are still question marks regarding the manager’s preferred formation, vis a vis forming a team around incompatible players. 4-2-3-1 suits Antoine Griezmann but not Paul Pogba, 4-3-3 the same problem but in reverse order – and that’s before accommodating Kylian Mbappe and Thomas Lemar, potential inclusions of Olivier Giroud and Nabil Fekir or, indeed, if Deschamps has the tactical nous to put this all together. The expectation is high in France, and Deschamps will be under serious pressure to deliver.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 12th
Best World Cup Finish: Quarter-finals (1998)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Did not qualify
One to Watch – Pione Sisto: Eriksen is the star of the show, but that does not mean that he is the only threat in this team. Pione Sisto of Celta Vigo is a constant threat down the left flank, and the pacy winger could be next port of call if the route to Eriksen is blocked at any time.
A tireless worker with a keen eye for an assist, Sisto stood out as one of the better performers in what was a frustrating season for Celta, ending the campaign with five goals and nine assists. Whether this tournament could propel the 23-year-old to a higher level remains to be seen but he will be determined to impress for his adopted country regardless.
Verdict: The team is built around Eriksen – and manager Age Hareide has made no secret of that – so the Tottenham playmaker’s performances will go some way to determine how far the Danes can progress in this tournament. With the weight of a nation on his shoulders, there’s no guarantee that the pressure won’t get to him – France and Peru won’t give him the oceans of space that Ireland did.
There’s a directness about how Denmark operate under the Hareide that works well for the most part, but does mean ceding the advantage in the middle at times. The defensive discipline and physicality will be powerful assets as a precursor for getting the ball up to Eriksen – but if that chain breaks at any stage, Denmark might not have a backup plan strong enough to make the last 16.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 36th
Best World Cup Finish: Round of 16 (2006)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Group Stage
One to Watch – Daniel Arzani: The hype surrounding the Melbourne City forward has been bubbling along nicely down under, and expect to spill over if Arazni performs in Russia. The 19-year-old has been putting in some terrific performances for City since the turn of the year, and the clamour for the winger to start against France in the opener will be growing over the next few days.
With a first touch that belies his young years and the ability to glide past players at will, Australian football hasn’t seen a talent like this since Harry Kewell. If Arzani is given the chance to catch the eye over the next few weeks, he could well make his stay in Europe a more permanent one soon after.
Verdict: The underdogs in a group that contains three of the world’s top twelve, the Socceroos will nonetheless hold out hope of progressing to the last sixteen. They certainly aren’t fighting the lost cause they endured in 2014 with Netherlands, Spain and Chile for company.
Much will depend on how well manager Bert van Marwijk knows these players by now, having only taken the reins in January. The Dutchman has thus far opted for a ‘safety first’ approach and that could spell trouble for creative talents like Aaron Mooy and Tom Rogic. It will be imperative for Van Marwijk that Australia are tough to beat – with pragmatism, expect three tight group matches.
FIFA Ranking (June 2018): 11th
Best World Cup Finish: Quarter-finals (1970)
World Cup 2014 Finish: Did not qualify
One to Watch – Paolo Guerrero: The veteran forward is already a known quantity, from his near-century of international caps to his time in the Bundesliga with Bayern Munich and Hamburg, at 34 he is hardly an emerging new talent. However, his road to Russia was a highly unorthodox one.
With a high-profile and very complicated drug ban verdict looking likely to rule Guerrero out of the tournament, the Peruvian legend received a last-minute reprieve to appear in the biggest event in the national side’s modern history. If he can regain anything approaching match fitness in the tournament (he hasn’t played competitively in over seven months, after all), then all eyes and hopes will be on the striker to power Peru into the knockout stages.
Verdict: Any side that gets through the notoriously difficult South American qualification stage deserves every ounce of respect it gets, and Peru are no different. There’s a tenacity, fearlessness and drive about this team that has got them this far, and they will be well up for the challenge of getting to the second round.
The forward options of Guerrero, Jefferson Farfan and Edison Flores will be crucial to their hopes of progression, as will the defensive solidity and discipline. If they defeat Denmark in their group opener, hopes of last 16 qualification will soon turn to expectation.
Prediction: On paper, this looks like it could be one of the more entertaining groups, with each other four sides blending flair with discipline to a degree. France will win the group provided they don’t have a collective meltdown, but second place isn’t as easy to call.
Australia’s best hope of progression is by keeping it tight, but in the face of such strong opposition that is not likely to be a strategy that pays off. Peru vs Denmark will be the decider here, and the South Americans might just have that bit too much for the Danes.