Defending champion: France’s unique luxury – WELT

AOn the bench, Kylian Mbappé giggled, Antoine Griezmann grinned and Ousmane Dembélé chattered. A happy commotion while a French B-Elf struggled against Tunisia on the pitch. The homework had already been done, France will go into the round of 16 against Poland on Sunday afternoon (4:00 p.m., ZDF) as group winners. And even if the three musketeers came on and forced an equalizing goal from Griezmann, which was denied by video evidence after the final whistle: the more important news for France is their good mood.

In 2018, the team of national coach Didier Deschamps led the team spirit to the world championship title, which was praised by all. In 2022 it had been considered impossible in the run-up to numerous disruptive fires. But here they are again, the Deschamps family.

She has a few exquisite members, of course. Mbappé above all, the famous striker from Paris St. Germain, who was very unhappy there this autumn and also made it known, but has so far been the shining model boy in the national team and scored three of the six French goals. But also the game-intelligent, variable Griezmann and the electric dribbler Dembélé. And the brawny Olivier Giroud, his country’s record goalscorer since the opening win over Australia.

Giroud scores with a header against Australia

Quelle: Getty Images/Stu Forster

Despite most of the injury failures of all favorites, the defending champion marches through the tournament. Or just because of that? The fact that N’Golo Kanté didn’t get fit in time may have its advantages – what condition he would have been in without match practice. The fact that Paul Pogba no longer made it – the “witch affair”, in the course of which he allegedly wanted to have Mbappé cursed, was a potential source of fire. And yes, also that Karim Benzema had to leave injured.

What’s supposed to be good about Benzema’s absence?

Benzema? The Real star was just named the undisputed world footballer of the year last month. In the Champions League last season he scored ten goals in the knockout round alone. What’s good about his failure? The well-known sports newspaper “L’Équipe” thinks it knows. Benzema’s departure was a relief for the team, she reported these days. The youngster would have been intimidated by their awe of the star, the other attackers could not thrive with him so well. Now the ambience is comparable to that of 2018 – when Benzema was still banned because of the “Sextape” affair about the extortion of former selection colleague Mathieu Valbuena.

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Soccer.jpg" data-srcset=" 1.0x" media="(min-width: 600px)">Soccer.jpg" data-srcset=" 1.0x">France striker Karim Benzema is out for the World Cup in Qatar

Of course, this representation was denied by the team. The young midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni, one of Benzema’s team-mates at Real Madrid, called them “completely wrong”. But it is striking that cheers were not heard when RMC Sport reported this week that Benzema’s thigh injury was recovering well enough that he could potentially return to Qatar late in the tournament. “I don’t know who says something like that,” said Deschamps. “I will not talk about things that have nothing to do with the team here.”

Deschamps understands like no other how to moderate conflicts – or not to let them arise in the first place. Otherwise he would hardly have lasted ten years as coach of a notoriously difficult national team that drove his predecessors Raymond Domenech and Laurent Blanc to despair and ultimately from office. If he then needed a striker again for a possible semi-final or final, he could always change his mind with Benzema – the regulations would allow it, because he didn’t fill his place again. But such an emergency is unlikely. The absence of Leipzig’s Christopher Nkunku, who was also injured, has not been particularly significant so far – France’s selection is so broad.

The midfield as the only sticking point

France can’t have any problems in defense even without Presnel Kimpembe and Bayern’s Lucas Hernández, where they had to leave players at home who would be in the starting XI for other top nations.

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The only sticking point is the midfield. It wasn’t necessarily France’s greatest strength before and has yet to cope with the absences of Kanté and Pogba. But Deschamps did the obvious. In addition to the remaining Adrien Rabiot (Juventus Turin) and Tchouaméni, he offers one more attacker compared to 2018. The result is a France that can seduce, instead of just winning practically as it did back then. But it would be unthinkable if one of these attackers wasn’t called Griezmann.

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Even at the 2018 World Cup, the Burgundy was the unsung success factor of the French. Although Mbappé scored the spectacular goals, Kanté amazed with his mileage, the central defenders headed decisive goals, and Pogba gave the emotional leader. But when there was a need for build-up play, overview and combination football, nothing worked without Griezmann. He often let himself fall out of the attack and thus connected the parts of the team with each other. In 2022, Deschamps institutionalized this hanging position due to the injury problems. “It’s a role in which Griezmann works wonderfully,” says the coach, pleased about the man who “balances” his team. “So he has a great influence on the game, it allows him to be present offensively and defensively.”

Griezmann, Mbappé, Dembélé, Giroud: People like to talk about “magical quartets” when four great attacking players are on the pitch together. With the defending champion, the magic is that everyone contributes what makes them special. Perhaps the most magical, Benzema, seems no longer needed. It’s a luxury that only France can afford.

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