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Les Bleus struggled in their Nations League outings in June and they could be frustrated here.
Back under 2.5 goals as France take on Austria this week. (+105)
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Only one team has ever retained the World Cup: Brazil, who triumphed in 1958 and 1962 (and then again in 1970). Since then, England, Germany, Argentina, Italy, France, Brazil and Spain have all tried and failed to retain the trophy. And there is an even more remarkable fact about the defending champions in the 21st century. Since the 2002 World Cup, four of the five holders have crashed out in the group phase: France (2002), Italy (2010), Spain (2014) and Germany (2014).
Few in France expect their side to follow suit at the 2022 World Cup in November and December, but then the teams above did not anticipate an early plane home either. On paper France have arguably the strongest squad on the planet, with Brazil the only nation capable of matching their depth and breadth of talent. And their triumph in 2018 means there is plenty of winning experience within the ranks too.
But Didier Deschamps’ side have not had the smoothest preparation for Qatar. They were knocked out of Euro 2016 by Switzerland in the round of 16, and their performances and results in the Nations League in June were hugely concerning. France lost to Denmark and Croatia, and drew with Austria and Croatia, collecting just two points from the first 12 on offer. Instead of aspiring for a place in the Finals, France head into their remaining two fixtures hoping to avoid relegation to League B.
Demotion would be a huge blow to a team that won the previous edition of the Nations League in 2020/21. But more worrying still would be what it means for the World Cup, which remains a much more prestigious tournament than Europe’s latest invention. With an eye on Qatar, Deschamps will want to see a response from his players this month.
There will be 13 European countries represented at the upcoming World Cup, which is equivalent to more than 40 percent of the total number of teams competing in Qatar. Soccer was founded in Europe, which remains the heartland of the sport and the continent that continues to dominate on the world stage. Indeed, it is now 20 years since the last non-European winner of the World Cup: Brazil in 2002.
Yet just because there are 13 places up for grabs, it is not easy for nations like Austria to qualify for the World Cup. They reached the knockout phase of Euro 2020 last summer, technically making them one of the top 16 teams on the continent, but not all those sides will be in Qatar. Austria finished way down in fourth in their qualification group, then lost in the play-offs to Wales.
As such, they are already beginning to look towards Euro 2024, the qualification campaign for which begins next year. Ralf Rangnick was handed the reins after he left Manchester United at the end of last season. The German did not do particularly well in the Premier League, but he remains an innovative and astute soccer mind who is probably better suited to the international game, which is by definition less intense and demanding than club level.
Defeat here would leave Austria bottom of Group 1 ahead of their concluding game against Croatia. A win, however, would secure their League A status at the expense of the world champions. It is not just France for whom the stakes are high at the Stade de France on Thursday.
France have an abundance of attacking talent to call upon. It could be argued that Karim Benzema and Kylian Mbappe are the two best forwards in the world right now. And if that duo is not producing the goods, Deschamps has the likes of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembele and Christopher Nkunku in reserve.
It is surprising, then, that France have struggled for goals of late. Their first four games in this Nations League campaign saw them find the back of the net just three times. Things are just not clicking in attack, with France’s struggles once again proving that collective cohesion is always more important in soccer than individual talent.
Austria will be aware of France’s difficulties in putting the ball in the net and will set out to frustrate their hosts. And given that confidence has been low of late, les Bleus may be more inclined than usual to protect a lead if they go ahead. All in all, we anticipate a low-scoring encounter at the Stade de France – under 2.5 goals is our tip in this one.
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|Teams||France vs Austria|
|Location||Stade de France, Saint-Denis, France|
|Time||Thursday, 22 September 2022, 14.45 PM EST|
|How to watch||fuboTV|
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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