World Cup dark horses: can France win in Brazil?
Four years after the disaster in South Africa the French will be hoping to make amends
Which French team will step off the plane in Brazil this summer? Will it be one determined to follow in the footsteps of legends like Zinedine Zidane and manager Didier Deschamps, or will we get a repeat of the bickering and bitching that we saw in South Africa?
France's abysmal showing in South Africa still haunts Les Bleus, and they can consider themselves lucky to be on the plane to Brazil at all, after coming back from two goals down to beat Ukraine in a play-off.
But although they only qualified by the skin of their teeth, Deschamps has a talented bunch of players at his disposal, as an impressive win over Holland showed in March. Youngsters like Paul Pogba have fitted in well alongside veteran talents including Franck Ribery. And, unlike his predecessors Laurent Blanc and Raymond Domenech, Deschamps is determined to ensure harmony in the camp, even if it means leaving out talents like Samir Nasri.
Players to watch:
Several of 2010's mutineers remain in the French squad, although their talisman Franck Ribery has been ruled out. Captain Hugo Lloris remains and will want to ensure there is no repeat of South Africa. Striker Karim Benzema will want to prove he is worthy of the World Cup after missing out in 2010, and then there is Paul Pogba, one of the most sought-after players in Europe. There are plenty of other well known faces, including the Arsenal triumvirate of Laurent Koscielny, Olivier Giroud and Bacary Sagna. Midfield dynamo Blaise Matuidi will also be crucial.
Why they could win it:
They not only have a strong first team they also have strength in depth, which is why Deschamps felt able to overlook Nasri. Leaving him out could be a masterstroke, says Julien Laurens in the Daily Telegraph. "Deschamps is a winner and wants to win. To reach his objectives, he sees beyond talent," he explains. "Despite the talent and the Manchester City midfielder's exceptional season, the coach considers that France have more chance of going further in the tournament without Nasri, than with him."
He may not be badly missed, either. "France have an excellent draw and, more important, one of the most impressive starting XIs on paper," says Michael Cox in The Guardian.
Christian Karembeu, a winner in 1998, agrees. "I know many countries are afraid of us and because of what we've demonstrated in the two games against Ukraine and Holland," he told CNN. "We are a team which can play, score and of course step up to claim victory."
If they click they should go a long way and could even make the final for the third time in six tournaments. A good run would fit the French pattern: they were poor in 1994 but won in 1998, they came bottom of their group in 2002 and made the final in 2006. They were bottom of their group again in 2010...
Why they might not: If the problems of 2010 resurface then the French are done for.
Historically France have always needed a little bit of luck, be it Ronaldo's infamous illness in 1998 or their rather fortuitous route to the final in 2006. If they don't get the breaks in Brazil then they are unlikely to prosper.
Deschamps is certainly keeping his ambition in check, in public at least. "There are countries that are much better than us on paper. We can't hide from the truth. The only match that France won in the group stage of a World Cup in the last 12 years was against Togo in 2006," he points out. If that's what the manager thinks, it might be tough convincing the players they are world beaters.
How far can they go: If they play to their potential and win their group, which should happen, then their first real test is likely to be against Germany in the last eight, followed by a clash with Brazil. If they can beat those two they deserve the trophy.
What the bookies think: It might be wise to back France before the tournament begins as their odds will plummet if they start well. They are 7/2 to make the semis and 20/1 to win the whole tournament. ·