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The defeat by Denmark should be a wake-up call for Didier Deschamps, but his side have the quality to bounce back immediately.
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France will be hoping the curse of the World Cup holders does not strike again in Qatar, but the warning signs are there. Remarkably, in four of the last five editions of the tournament, the reigning champions have been eliminated in the group phase: France in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014, and Germany in 2018. The only exception was Brazil, who survived the first and second rounds in 2006 but were comprehensively knocked out by a Zinedine Zidane-inspired France in the quarter-finals.
Each case was unique, but it is nevertheless possible to draw some similarities between them. On all but one occasion (France in 2002), the same manager that led the team to World Cup glory was in charge four years later.
It is easy to say in hindsight, of course, but Marcello Lippi (Italy), Vicente del Bosque (Spain) and Joachim Low (Germany) all stayed on too long. Deschamps is likely to depart at the end of the year, but some French fans would have preferred him to have already handed over the reins to a different manager.
Another issue is personnel. World Cup-winning coaches tend to favor the players who helped them win the tournament – a perfectly understandable preference. Yet it is vital in soccer that teams do not stand still. Deschamps will be thinking long and hard about that in the coming months. Should he bring more fresh blood into the squad in general and the starting XI in particular?
Thursday’s 2-1 home loss to Denmark in the Nations League was not an isolated incident. France underwhelmed at Euro 2020 last summer and has produced several disappointing displays since Hugo Lloris hoisted the World Cup trophy aloft four years ago. France need to rediscover their verve, ideally starting with Monday’s match in Split.
Croatia, of course, were France’s opponent in the 2018 World Cup final. They gave an excellent account of themselves in Russia and exceeded expectations by making it all the way to the showpiece event. Given the fact that the country has a population of just over four million, they were never going to be able to maintain that level beyond the medium term.
Croatia still punch above their weight and are now firmly established as potential dark horses at each World Cup and European Championship. But the Vatreni might have to wait for the next generation to emerge before they are ready to go deep in one of those tournaments again or make it through to the Nations League Finals.
Indeed, Croatia are still heavily reliant on many of the same old names: Luka Modric, Sime Vrsaljko, Mateo Kovacic, Dejan Lovren, Ivan Perisic. The latter two players will miss Monday’s game through injury, while Mario Mandzukic retired from soccer last year. There are some gifted younger players coming up through the ranks, but none are likely to match the achievements of Modric, Mandzukic et al.
Croatia were outplayed by Austria on Thursday – a worrying sign given it was their opponents’ first game under their new manager, Ralf Rangnick. Zlatko Dalic will hope to see a response from his players when they lock horns with France.
Croatia will hope that Thursday’s loss was a one-off. It may well have been since they managed to avoid defeat in each of their nine previous matches, stretching back to Euro 2020. But this is a team in need of a refresh, and France’s sheer strength in depth makes them daunting opponents for anyone.
Deschamps’ side will undoubtedly need to turn in a vastly improved performance if they are to emerge victorious in their second game of the 2022/23 Nations League. There is ample talent within the French ranks, but that alone has never been sufficient for success. France must show they can at least be equal to the sum of their parts.
Yet even when they were winning the World Cup, les Bleus tended to beat teams on moments rather than flow. They do not dominate matches from start to finish à la Del Bosque’s Spain. France’s formula under Deschamps is to keep things tight at the back and hope one of their many gifted forwards makes the difference in the final third. Perhaps that is now the optimum strategy in the international game, and it certainly worked in Russia.
Whether it is enough for France to retain that trophy in Qatar remains to be seen. Against Croatia on Monday, though, they should have enough to win.
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|Croatia vs France Information|
|Teams||Croatia vs France|
|Location||Stadion Poljud, Split, Croatia|
|Time||Monday, 6 June 2022, 2.45 PM EDT|
|How to watch||Fox Sports 1|
Greg Lea is a freelance soccer journalist from London. He is the former editor of The Set Pieces, and has contributed to the Guardian, FourFourTwo, and ESPN. A Crystal Palace fan, he is a long-time subscriber to the belief that it's the taking part that counts. Email: [email protected]More info on Greg Lea
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