Didier Deschamps must tread carefully while plotting France's World Cup defence in Qatar

Les Bleus will be without a number of stars who helped them lift title in 2018

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Several million French citizens will tune into Wednesday's news bulletin on TF1, France’s state broadcaster, with special interest. It has become a tradition for the head coach of the national team to announce, live to the biggest possible audience, the names of the players who will represent Les Bleus at World Cups.

This ritual set-piece is not necessarily a good omen. In 2010, when the French Federation established the peak-time, live-on-air unveiling of World Cup squads, the players named were, within weeks, organising a strike, refusing to train at their unhappy, fractious practice base in South Africa.

Didier Deschamps, appointed manager for the following World Cup tournament, was still dealing with the fall-out from that toxic campaign four years later.

By the time of the Russia tournament in 2018, Deschamps felt more confident of his men. When he listed that squad, a party with some notable omissions, he sensed they could go a long way. He heads to his third World Cup as coach – and his fourth in all; he captained France’s 1998 winners – in charge of the reigning champions.

How many of those champions he takes to Qatar is in some doubt. Twenty-four hours before Deschamps reads out his chosen 26 – or possibly 25; he may not use the entire, expanded Fifa allowance if he suspects a back-of-the-queue outfield player could be grumpy at only being on the bench throughout – he was still checking on significant fitness issues.

Manchester United's French defender Raphael Varane in tears after picking up an injury at Stamford Bridge in London on October 22, 2022. AFP

Among them, Raphael Varane, who two-and-a-half weeks ago limped from the pitch during Manchester United’s draw at Chelsea in tears. He feared a sharp pain in his thigh put his World Cup in jeopardy. Varane will not play in either of United’s remaining matches before club football breaks for the Qatar tournament, but has indicated to Deschamps that his recuperation is progressing well.

Deschamps values Varane, a pillar of Les Bleus’ defence in Russia, and he well knows why the player felt so distraught when injury struck against Chelsea. In 2016, Deschamps had to exclude Varane from his squad for the European Championship, a tournament staged in France, because the defender had suffered a muscle injury during the lead-up to the tournament.

The coach has a strict line. “With my accumulated experience,” said Deschamps, referring to his playing and management career, “I know never to set off [for a tournament] with any player who isn’t ready to start the first match.”

Definitely excluded from the bid to win successive World Cups are N’Golo Kante, with a hamstring problem, and Paul Pogba, whose knee injury and subsequent complications have prevented him even making a debut for Juventus, who he joined from United in the summer. Their absences mean the heart of the Bleus midfield from the 2018 success must be replaced.

Adrien Rabiot, of Juve, will assume some of their responsibilities. When his name is read out, a curious journey will have been completed. Four years ago, Rabiot was named as a back-up reserve, in case of late injury to any of the 23 named in the squad for Russia. He refused to be considered, leading to a period of exile from France’s plans and a frosty relationship with Deschamps.

Rabiot is not the only Bleu with a troubled history with the manager. Karim Benzema only came back into contention 20 months ago after a five-year absence, the result of a serious falling out with Deschamps.

Benzema, holder of the Ballon D’Or, is now causing a different sort of headache. He has missed eight Real Madrid matches this season with muscular problems and was left out of the line-up for Monday’s defeat at Rayo Vallecano.

Paris Saint-Germain defender Presnel Kimpembe has meanwhile been fit enough for only 70 minutes of action in the past two months, Bayern Munich’s Lucas Hernandez for only 26 minutes since mid-September, and Wesley Fofana no minutes at all since picking up a knee injury playing for Chelsea in early October.

With Barcelona’s Jules Kounde also struggling for fitness, that’s four potential defensive partners of – or replacements for – Varane carrying question marks. Some compensation is provided in the recent form of Arsenal’s William Saliba.

Likewise, if Benzema is running gingerly, there’s been good news for Deschamps in Olivier Giroud’s recent exploits for AC Milan. Giroud at centre-forward, with Kylian Mbappe and Antoine Griezmann playing off him, was a fixture at Russia 2018 even though he went goalless through that World Cup.

His place in the hierarchy slipped with Benzema’s international comeback, but Giroud is an evergreen. At 35, he is eyeing the all-time record for goals for France. He needs three to overtake Thierry Henry’s 51. He is targeting the sport’s greatest event as the stage to reach that landmark.

Updated: November 09, 2022, 2:53 AM
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