FIFA World Cup Group D Preview: Masterclass or disasterclass for France?

FIFA World Cup Group D Preview: Masterclass or disasterclass for France?

Four years removed from their second World Cup title, the French national team lands in Doha looking to defend its crown. They’ll have a bit of deja-vu as the group they headline is eerily familiar to the one they won in Russia.

Didier Deschamps’ squad will take on Denmark and Australia again, with Tunisia replacing Peru this time to round out Group D. The Danes enter the tournament with momentum, having had the upper-hand on the French in previous matchups in the past year. From there, Australia and Tunisia will battle for points with the hopes of getting into a position to upset one of the two European powers in the group.

GROUP D SCHEDULE:

Nov. 22: Denmark vs. Tunisia (8 a.m. ET)
Nov. 22: France vs. Australia (2 p.m. ET)
Nov. 26: Tunisia vs. Australia (5 a.m. ET)
Nov. 26: France vs. Denmark (11 a.m. ET)
Nov. 30: Tunisia vs. France (10 a.m. ET)
Nov. 30: Australia vs. Denmark (10 a.m. ET)

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THE TEAMS

FRANCE
FIFA world ranking: 4
Top scorer in qualifying: Antoine Griezmann (six goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +391 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: -242

Previous World Cup appearances: 15
Best showing: World Cup champions (1998 and 2018) 
2018 World Cup: Champions

Manager: Didier Deschamps
Probable formation: 3-5-2
Probable starting XI: Hugo Lloris (Tottenham/England) — Jules Kounde (Barcelona/Spain), Raphael Varane (Manchester United/England), Presnel Kimpembe (PSG) — Theo Hernandez (AC Milan/Italy), Eduardo Camavinga (Real Madrid/Spain), Antoine Greizmann (Atletico Madrid/Spain), Aurielien Tchouameni (Real Madrid/Spain), Benjamin Pavard (Bayern/Germany) — Kylian Mbappe (PSG), Karim Benzema (Real Madrid/Spain).

The Big Question: How much will losing N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba affect France’s chances at defending their World Cup title? 

The Pulse: With the injuries to Pogba and Kante, the baton has officially been passed on to a younger generation of French midfielders headlined by 20-year-old Eduardo Camavinga. The central midfielder made the star-studded move to Real Madrid from Ligue 1 club Rennes in 2021 and never looked back. This will be a first World Cup for Camavinga and the sky’s the limit for the man who is mature beyond his years, and already speaks impeccable Spanish

Karim Benzema will also be a huge talking point for Les Bleus. Flying high off a Ballon d’Or season, muscle issues have sidelined Benzema in the weeks leading up to the World Cup. Olivier Giroud was in the starting lineup for France in 2018 and could repeat the experience if Benzema isn’t fully fit just yet. Will having Benzema available off the bench end up being the biggest luxury of any squad in Qatar? 

The French have a difficult history with defending their titles. Following their conquest in 1998, France didn’t pass the group stage in Japan/South Korea. And after they lost the infamous 2006 World Cup final, Les Bleus failed to reach the knockout round in a disastrous 2010 World Cup campaign. Will 2022 be the year that breaks that trend? 

The X-factor: Believe it or not, Olivier Giroud is three goals away from passing Thierry Henry as France’s all-time top scorer. With Mbappe and Benzema as goal threats, can Giroud squeak in enough goals to help his nation and write himself in the history books? 

The Breakout Candidate: Camavinga has already made his top club move but he has yet to feature in a World Cup. The 20-year-old has an opportunity to show the world that France is just as strong as they were in Russia. 


Denmark’s Kasper Dolberg (second left) celebrates scoring with teammates Christian Eriksen (centre right), Joachim Maehle and Andreas Skov Olsen (right ). (Liselotte Sabroe/Ritzau Scanpix via AP)

DENMARK
FIFA world ranking: 10th
Top scorer in qualifying: Joakim Maehle and Andreas Skov Olsen (five goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +1,686 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +246

Previous World Cup appearances: 5
Best showing: Quarterfinals (1998)
2018 World Cup: Round of 16

Manager: Kasper Hjulmand
Probable formation: 3-4-1-2
Probable starting XI: Kasper Scmeichel (Nice/France) — Rasmus Kristensen (Leeds/England), Andreas Christensen (Barcelona/Spain) — Joakim Maehle (Atalanta/Italy), Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg (Tottemham/England), Thomas Delaney (Sevilla/Spain) Christian Eriksen (Manchester United/England), Andreas Skov Olsen (Club Brugge/Belgium) — Mikkel Damsgaard (Brentford/England), Kasper Dolberg (Sevilla/Spain).

The Big Question: Can Denmark replicate its UEFA Nations League success against France at the World Cup to steal first place in the group? 

The Pulse: Denmark had the edge on the French this year in Nations League play. Andreas Cornelius scored a brace to lift the Danes 2-1 at Stade de France and then blanked them 2-0 at Parken in late September. 

Denmark even held France to a scoreless draw during group play in 2018, the tournament that saw Les Bleus win it all. Needless to say, the Red and Whites aren’t feeling too nervous for what is essentially a redo of 2018’s Group C (with Tunisia replacing Peru). 

The team is also entering the competition with an activist spirit. They have been very vocal about the atrocities in Qatar, and their own sponsor designed muted kits to minimize their presence in a country holding values they don’t accept. The Danes have already been forbidden by FIFA from wearing training kits with human rights messaging on them. 

It’ll be interesting to see what unfolds with Denmark on and off the pitch.

The X-factor: Pardon me for not being imaginative but there’s no way Christian Eriksen isn’t Denmark’s X-factor. Emotions can lift a team to new heights and inspire them to great things. 

Tell me you wouldn’t be inspired if you’re one of those Denmark players going to the World Cup and you saw Erikssen ready to go from across the locker room? A man that nearly lost his life while playing for his country at the great Parken Stadium in Copenhagen during the 2020 Euros. Here’s a man that defied the odds and came back to play at the highest level. I sure would, folks. Never underestimate emotion.

The Breakout Candidate: Andreas Skov Olsen moved from Serie A club Bologna to Club Brugge in late January. At only 22 years old, he is his country’s top scorer in qualifying. With the likes of Eriksen, Hojbjerg and Delaney feeding him at the World Cup, there’s a good chance he may raise his stock and not stay in the Belgian league much longer.


Tunisia players Hannibal Jegham (right), Nader Ghandri (centre) and Seifeddine Jaziri (left) celebrate after qualifying for World Cup 2022. (Hassene Dridi/AP)

TUNISIA
FIFA world ranking: 30th
Top scorer in qualifying: Wahbi Khazri (three goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +30,600 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +1,522

Previous World Cup appearances: 5 
Best showing: Group Stage
2018 World Cup: Group Stage

Manager: Jalel Kadri 
Probable formation: 4-3-3
Probable starting XI: Aymen Dahmen (CS Sfaxie) — Mohamed Drager (Luzern/Switzerland), Montassar Talbi (Lorient/France) Dylan Bronn (Salernitana/Italy), Ali Abdi (Caen/France) — Aissa Laidouni (Ferencvaros/Hungary), Elyas Skhiri (Koln/Germany), Ghaylane Chaalali (Esperence Tunis) — Anis Ben Slimane (Brondby/Sweden), Youssef Msakni (Al-Arabi/Qatar), Wahbi Khazri (Montpellier/France).

The Big Question: Tunisia is not a team to be underestimated but will they hit a wall with the challenge that Group D will offer?

The Pulse: The heart and soul of the Tunisian national team is Wahbi Khazri. The nation’s top scorer in qualifying is 12 goals away from becoming their all-time marksman.

He’s got a European pedigree having played in the Premier League for Sunderland and is now plying his trade in France with Montpellier. He struggled with injury in 2022 but has been a solid presence for his Ligue 1 club with two goals and one assist this season playing at centre forward and on the left wing.

Tunisia’s second match against Australia will be crucial to their survival in the tournament. A win against the Socceroos and the African nation could have one foot in the knockout round. With France waiting for them in the final group game, Tunisia will be hoping that the defending champion curse is still in full effect and that they can steal a result. Upsets have been known to happen at the World Cup.

The X-factor: Another key veteran on this squad is Youssef Msakni, who will share the nation’s captaincy with Khazri at the World Cup.

At 32-years-old, Msakni will be expected to help carry the team offensively. He will feel right at home at this tournament as he has been playing in the Qatar Stars League since 2013. The winger/striker is currently on loan Al-Arabi SC and has had a solid start to the 2022-23 season with four goals and two assists in six matches.

The Breakout Candidate: Premier League fans, watch out for attacking midfielder Hannibal Mejbri. The Manchester United youngster, currently on loan at Championship side Birmingham City, was included in Tunisia’s squad for Qatar. He will most probably be an option off the bench but the 19-year-old could boost the veteran squad, or help Tunisia win a crucial corner kick, in the hopes to impress the higher-ups at Old Trafford.


AUSTRALIA
FIFA world ranking: 38th
Top scorer in qualifying: Jamie Maclaren (seven goals)
Odds to win the World Cup: +21,700 (via Sports Interaction)
Odds to win the group: +1,452

Previous World Cup appearances: 5
Best showing: Round of 16 (2006)
2018 World Cup: Group Stage 

Manager: Graham Arnold
Probable formation: 4-2-3-1
Probable starting XI: Matt Ryan (FC Copenhagen/Denmark) — Nathaniel Atkinson (Hearts/Scotland), Bailey Wright (Sunderland/England), Kye Rowles (Hearts/Scotland), Aziz Behich (Dundee United/Scotland) — Aaron Mooy (Celtic/Scotland), Jackson Irvine (St. Pauli/Germany), Martin Boyle (Hibernians/Scotland), Ajdin Hrustic (Hellas Verona/Italy), Mathew Leckie (Melbourne City) — Jamie Maclaren (Melbourne City).

The Big Question: Will the Socceroos win a game? Australia has only won two matches in five World Cup appearances, their last victory coming over Serbia in 2010.

The Pulse: Australia’s advantage in this group is familiarity. They’re playing incredibly talented squads but at least they’ve faced them already.

The Pulse: One advantage Australia has in Qatar is familiarity, having seen France (2-1 loss) and Denmark (1-1 draw) in group play during the 2018 tournament. That will help get them prepared for the tough task ahead.

After an Asian qualifying campaign that ended with a whimper and nearly left the team without a ticket to Doha, Australia made the World Cup via the intercontinental playoffs. The now-famous and wonderfully weird heroics of backup goalkeeper Andrew Redmayne in penalties against Peru was the reason they’ll play in Qatar, but will they be content with just being there?

As stated above, Australia’s clash against Tunisia will go a long way in determining whether either of those teams can flirt with advancing out of the group. The Socceroos will hope to rekindle the energy from the intercontinental playoffs and bring it to a match that will be a must-win for both teams. No draws will suffice.

The X-factor: English football fans may remember Aaron Mooy’s name. The veteran central midfielder spent many years in the Premier League and Championship with Huddersfield and Brighton, but it was a move to Scotland that revived his career.

Under Australian manager Ange Postecoglu, Mooy has proved his worth with league leaders Celtic. Can the 32-year-old channel some of his Scottish energy to Australia’s midfield?

The Breakout Candidate: Jamie Maclaren was a bit of a late bloomer at 29-years-old and still plays domestically for Melbourne City. The striker is coming in hot with eight goals in six games in the A-League and could raise some eyebrows. He’s also been given the classic goal-scorer’s No. 9 for the World Cup.


THE BOLD PREDICTION FOR GROUP D

Denmark will warm the hearts of everyone in world football by winning Group D. France will hiccup but still make it through. The pressure is on, bonne chance.

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