Who: France vs Australia, Group D
Where: Al Janoub Stadium
When: Tuesday, November 22 at 22:00 AST, 19:00 GMT
FIFA ranking: France (4), Australia (38)
Defending champions France are clear favourites to beat Australia on Tuesday despite losing several key players through injury.
On Saturday, striker and this year’s Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema had to withdraw from the tournament after tearing a muscle in training. Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, both stalwarts of the team that won the 2018 World Cup, were unable to travel to Qatar. Christopher Nkunku was forced to limp out of training on Tuesday after being tackled by his own teammate.
Despite these injuries, France’s team offers an embarrassment of riches, with Kylian Mbappé and Antoine Griezmann expected to lead the charge for Les Bleus in Benzema’s absence. With Pogba and Kante missing, manager Didier Deschamps will likely look to Aurelien Tchouameni and Adrien Rabiot to take their place in midfield.
The two teams met in the last World Cup, with France narrowly beating Australia 2-1 in the group stage courtesy of an own goal and a penalty. France will hope for a convincing win this time. But Australia will look to draw inspiration from their 2018 performance against the eventual tournament winners.
This is the fifth consecutive World Cup appearance for Australia’s Socceroos. However, they are yet to make it out of the group stage since they reached the round of 16 in 2006 with their “golden generation”, which included players like Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell, and Mark Viduka.
“Australia come into this tournament with an eclectic group of players: a handful have previous World Cup experience, but the majority are at their first finals ever, with nine most recently representing the under-23s side at the Tokyo Olympics,” says Samantha Lewis, an Australian football writer.
Still, what Australia’s team lacks in experience it makes up with youth — and just possibly, the appetite to challenge France.
Lewis describes the Australia squad as “filled with young, hungry players given their first big shot on the world stage, which is both exciting and nerve-wracking in equal measure”.
Graham Arnold, Australia’s manager, has become known for a pragmatic style of play in recent years. Against France, he will likely rely on regulars such as Celtic midfielder Aaron Mooy and veteran goalkeeper and skipper Mathew Ryan to provide organisation and discipline as they face some of finest footballers on the planet.
Australia also boast talented Cadiz winger Awer Mabil in their ranks, as well as teenager Garang Kuol, who has just signed with Newcastle United in the Premier League. Ajdin Hrustic, who won the 2022 Europa League and now plies his trade in the Serie A, appears to have shaken off an injury and will be able to provide a creative spark in midfield.
Lewis says there is little expectation in Australia that their team will overcome Les Bleus. However, she admits to some cautious optimism. “France aren’t the force they were four years ago thanks to a string of untimely injuries and drama within the camp,” she said. “So, there are some pockets of faithful fans (including me) who reckon they could pinch a goal or two if France takes as long to warm into the tournament as they have in the past.”