Twenty years after France’s 1998 World Cup success on home soil, can Paul Pogba help them go top of the world again? French journalist Aurelien Sagnier provides an answer before Les Bleus' opening game against Australia on Saturday...
“I put a lot of thought into the question and, after much deliberation, I must admit the 2006 World Cup squad was superior – but a lot of that was down to the genius of Zinedine Zidane in midfield.
“The current France squad is packed with talent and promise, and it’s only natural that we are considered to be among the main contenders to win the 2018 World Cup. Although some of the recent friendlies, such as a 3-2 home loss to Colombia and last Saturday's 1-1 draw with USA, served as a harsh reminder that high potential alone doesn’t equate to trophies, this young generation has certainly raised high expectations.
“In 1998, Didier Deschamps captained France to a historical 3-0 win over Brazil in the World Cup final. This summer in Russia, he will try to emulate Mario Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer, who are the only two men to have won the trophy both as player and managers.
“After being frustrated by Germany in the quarter-finals of the 2014 edition, Deschamps took the nation to the Euro 2016 final in Paris but suffered a shock by losing to Portugal in extra time. This summer, he wants to go one step further by lifting that famous trophy in Moscow.”
A YOUNG BUT EXPERIENCED SQUAD
“France can count on a crop of early-bloomers: the typical starting XI has an average age of 25 but doesn’t lack experience in high-stake matches at club level. Shielding Tottenham Hotspur’s Hugo Lloris is a young back four composed of Manchester City’s Benjamin Mendy (23), Barcelona's Samuel Umtiti (24), Real Madrid’s Raphaël Varane (24) and Monaco’s Djibril Sidibé (25) – though the latter has picked up an injury in training this week.
“There are plenty of options in the engine room. Blaise Matuidi (Juventus) and Steven Nzonzi (Sevilla) provide some experience, while N’Golo Kante (Chelsea, 27), Corentin Tolisso (Bayern Munich, 23) and our very own Paul Pogba (25) have plenty ahead of them.
“But it’s probably the selection of forwards which gives Deschamps the worst headaches: he usually trusts Chelsea’s towering Olivier Giroud as the front man and Atletico Madrid's Antoine Griezmann in a free role, but his wingers are plentiful, with Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain), Thomas Lemar (Monaco), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona) and Florian Thauvin (Marseille) to choose from. Even in the absence of the overlooked Alexandre Lacazette (Arsenal) and injured Dimitri Payet (Marseille), France can look to Lyon's Nabil Fekir, who has been reportedly targeted by Liverpool this summer and is at his best playing behind a striker.
HOW CAN POGBA CONTRIBUTE?
“Pogba has been almost ever-present since his first call-up in 2013, and it’s rare to see him outside the starting XI: he has started in 46 of his 54 caps and scored nine goals. A leading figure in the midfield, his capacity to go forward and pick out a team-mate from 30 metres away makes him a real threat.
“Anthony Martial, who did not make the final squad for the World Cup, was a casualty of the tough competition for places, despite regularly raising to the big occasions: he scored his solitary international goal against Italy in September 2016 and provided an assist in last November’s 2-2 draw to Germany.
“Based on the side that faced the USA and subsequent media speculation, here's the starting XI that could begin the World Cup - youthful at the back, tough in the midfield and guileful up front: Lloris; Pavard, Umtiti, Varane, Hernandez; Pogba, Kanté, Tolisso; Dembélé, Griezmann, Mbappé.”