Many World Cup trophy-holders seem cursed – as evidenced by France’s 2002 debacle after their celebrated victory in 1998. But Les Bleus gave a clear sign they are bucking the trend with a formidable performance against Australia on Tuesday. It was a performance worthy of champions – and it does not augur well for their Danish opponents on Saturday.
Didier Deschamps’ men dealt coolly with the Socceroos, taking a shock early lead. Juventus midfielder Adrien Rabiot’s clinical finish put them equal – demonstrating that he is more than capable of matching the versatility and tactical acumen of the injured Paul Pogba. The 36-year-old Olivier Giroud proved beyond any doubt that the AC Milan star is one of the most underrated strikers in the contemporary game with his brace – matching Thierry Henry’s record of 51 goals for Les Bleus while becoming France’s oldest-ever World Cup goalscorer.
Yet the star of the show – the player on whom France will depend more than anybody else – was Kylian Mbappé. The wunderkind who took the footballing world by storm at the 2018 World Cup has only accentuated his gifts alongside Lionel Messi and Neymar at PSG. Mbappé showcased his lacerating pace and sharp creativity against the Aussies – a frequent menace down the left flank, as well as pivoting to the centre with deft positional interchanges with his midfield colleagues.
Mbappé reminded Denmark that he will be their greatest source of fear. A bad sign for Denmark also came in the form of Antoine Griezmann, playing in a deeper, more central role than his traditional position as a winger. Before the Australia match, there were questions as to whether Griezmann still has what it takes to win matches at the highest level; Atletico Madrid mainly use him as a sub these days. But even against a weak opponent in the shape of the Socceroos, Griezmann banished any doubts that he is still a top player – with ingenious positioning and exquisite balls into the box.
The undersung hero of that opening match was 22-year-old Real Madrid defensive midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni – who proved himself an apt replacement for injured Chelsea star N’Golo Kanté. Tchouaméni got more touches on the ball than any other player, keeping the ball in France’s possession with short, sharp passes – and often hitting it longer with penetrating through balls to carve up the Aussie defence.
‘We have something the others don’t’
Yet Deschamps will have to adapt against Denmark, when the gulf in quality will no longer be there.
France’s manager will have to correct the defensive laxity that saw an unmarked Craig Goodwin stun his team with that 9th-minute opening goal for Australia. Neither Ibrahima Konaté nor Dayot Upamecano projects reassurance at the heart of the French defence, as Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti did in 2018.
That’s as Mbappé took a while to get going and missed some strong chances against the Socceroos, despite those dazzling moments.
Denmark boast an array of fine players – chiefly 30-year-old Manchester United midfielder Christian Eriksen. A record five-time Danish Player of the Year winner, Eriksen imposed himself as a top drawer talent during his seven-year spell at Tottenham. The Danish star’s career was threatened when he collapsed on the pitch at Euro 2021, suffering a cardiac arrest due to hypertrophic cardiomyopathy, a rare heart condition. But Eriksen recovered well from the shocking incident – and is a huge bright spot for United during ongoing turbulence for the storied English club. France’s midfield anchorman Tchouaméni may well find that handling Eriksen stifles the creativity he displayed against the Aussies.
Alongside Eriksen, Denmark have a formidable box-to-box midfielder in Pierre-Emile Hojbjerg. The Tottenham star is gifted at both preventing opposition offensives and driving forward attacks. Managers love him. “The personality is really strong,” Denmark manager Kasper Hjulmand said last year. “A fire is burning in Pierre.” Spurs manager Antonio Conte thinks much the same about Hojbjerg, telling journalists: “Every game he’s doing a fantastic job.”
Behind Hojbjerg, Sevilla’s Thomas Delaney is Denmark’s defensive midfield linchpin – not quite as menacing as Roy Keane or as creative as Andrea Pirlo, but not an easy player for attacking midfielders to get past. In defence, they have their most experienced player and team captain, Simon Kjaer. The 33-year-old AC Milan star has maintained his edge in the latter stage of his career – and is well experienced at the tight defensive play exemplified by Italian club football. And Kjaer knows France’s goalscoring machine Giroud inside and out, training with his teammate every week for their club.
To cap it off, Denmark have a sterling goalkeeper in Kasper Schmeichel. Best known for his role in Leicester’s astonishing run to the Premier League title in 2015-16 – not to mention being the son of legendary former Manchester United goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel – the 36-year-old is in the twilight of his career at middle-ranking Ligue 1 side Nice. But Schmeichel remains a tremendous shot-stopper and has lost little of his aerial agility.
Renowned for his tactical pragmatism, Deschamps will no doubt have a plan for breaking down this solid Danish team – all while maintaining the confidence gained by that 4-1 thrashing of Australia. And Les Bleus have a further cause for optimism after Denmark disappointed in their opening clash against Tunisia, producing a goalless draw against surprisingly strong opponents.
But France will have no cause for complacency as they seek a strong showing in the group stage. Amid the adversity of Eriksen’s cardiac arrest, Denmark’s variety of talent and team spirit carried them all the way to the semi-finals at Euro 2021.
“We’re not Brazil, Germany or France,” Hojbjerg told FIFA. “But we have something the others don’t have.”
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