FIFA WC Preview: Injury-hit France flirt with champions curse

The curse of the defending champions will hang over injury-hit France when they open their World Cup title defence in a group match against Australia on Tuesday – a repeat of the start to their triumphant 2018 campaign.

A VAR penalty and a deflected Paul Pogba strike gave Didier Deschamps’s side a solid start with a 2-1 win over the Socceroos four years ago, and they were soon firing on all cylinders as they marched to their second title in Moscow.

France were famously upset by World Cup debutants Senegal to open their title defence in 2002, however, and since then only Brazil in 2006 have won their first finals match as reigning champions.

“Now all the teams want to win against France. All the teams want to beat us,” defender Lucas Hernandez said on Friday.

“We’re confident in the qualities we have. It’s going to be a real fight. Once we have started our tournament against Australia, we will know more.”

The French in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018 all followed their stuttering starts as champions by bombing out in the group stage.

France’s preparations for Qatar have been far from smooth with a poor run of form and the loss of influential midfielders Pogba and N’Golo Kante to injury.

Another hammer blow followed on Saturday when Ballon D’Or winning striker Karim Benzema was ruled out of the tournament by a thigh injury.

Deschamps does, however, have the luxury of being able to call on Olivier Giroud to reunite with Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann in an attack that served him well in 2018.

Socceroos coach Graham Arnold has much less proven quality to choose from and will be looking to Australia’s famous physicality and fighting spirit to deliver a first World Cup finals win for the country since 2010.

Failing that, with Group D matches against Denmark and Tunisia to follow, Australia will be desperate to avoid a repeat of the 4-0 thrashing at the hands of Germany that derailed their 2010 campaign before it really got started.

While Arnold’s side struggled to qualify – only stamping their ticket via a penalty shootout in an intercontinental playoff against Peru in June – he has included a handful of inexperienced but highly confident attackers in his squad.

“It’s our first World Cup and we really want to shock the world,” said winger Awer Mabil. “I think we have the quality to do that, we just have to show our ability.”

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