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May 16, 2014

32 Teams in 32 Days: France


Group E | Switzerland | Ecuador | Honduras


Team DNA 


After keeping faith with a 4-2-3-1 formation for much of qualifying, manager Didier Deschamps switched to 4-3-3 for France's decisive and victorious World Cup qualifying playoff second-leg match against Ukraine.

The success of that game -- with Yohan Cabaye in front of the back four, along with Paul Pogba and Blaise Matuidi as the lungs of the midfield -- has provided Deschamps, France's 1998 World Cup-winning captain, with the platform on which he will build Les Bleus' campaign.

Karim Benzema and Franck Ribery will form two-thirds of the front trio with Mathieu Valbuena or Loic Remy joining them. They will attempt to dominate possession against weaker opponents, such as those they meet in the group stage, but switch to become more of a counter-attacking unit when they face stiffer tests.

Starting scenario

History

France have qualified for all but three World Cups, winning it all on home soil in 1998. They reached the final again in 2006, but fell to Italy 5-3 on penalties.

How they reached Brazil 


The defining moment of qualification was perhaps the group-stage draw in which France were pitted with Spain in a five-team section. Even though a late Oliver Giroud equaliser in Madrid raised hopes that Deschamps' men could pip La Roja to automatic qualification, second place was instead confirmed after a 1-0 loss against the world champions in Paris.

France appeared wholly unprepared for their playoff first leg in Ukraine, where a pitiful performance led to a 2-0 defeat that had them teetering on the brink of a shocking exit. Only an exceptional display in the second leg at the Stade de France -- and a pallid 90 minutes from their opponents -- sent Les Bleus through. Cabaye was brilliant in that game, earning himself first-choice status, just as Samir Nasri's miserable first-leg display cost him his World Cup summer.

Mamadou Sakho's two goals in the 3-0 win -- his first in international football -- made him a national hero for a day. The Liverpool defender should partner with Raphael Varane at the heart of the defence.

The numbers never lie

Calculating a nation's passion for the game based on how well it pays its manager, attends its games and gets out to play:

Key battles 


France's old enemy, England, are only potential semifinal opponents regardless of how they qualify for the knockout stages, so getting one over on their unloved neighbours is unlikely given the weaknesses of Roy Hodgson's squad.

With Argentina as likely Round of 16 opponents if they fail top the group, Deschamps will emphasise the need to emerge as section winners to likely face Bosnia-Herzegovina, coached by former Paris Saint-Germain player Safet Susic, or Nigeria. If France come through that, Germany would likely await in the last eight, reviving the collective French nightmare of their penalty shootout defeat to the Nationalmannschaft in the 1982 World Cup semifinals. How Les Bleus would love to lay to rest the ghost of that game in Seville!

After that, perhaps hosts Brazil would be next up in the semifinals, where the Seleçao would be out to avenge a painful loss: their 3-0 defeat to a side led by Deschamps in the 1998 Cup final in Paris.

Yohan Cabaye is set to compete in his first World Cup for France.
Yohan Cabaye is set to compete in his first World Cup for France.


Most important player 


Prior to the playoff against Ukraine, the answer would have unequivocally been Ribery. But the manner in which the Bayern Munich man was all but snuffed out by tight marking, and his subsequent colourless displays for his club, have seen his star wane.

Deschamps will hope Benzema, France's classiest striker, can carry his Real Madrid form onto the international stage, but it is Cabaye who holds the key. His distribution when in possession and doggedness when not are precious qualities. The PSG midfielder said recently that Deschamps was happy he has not been playing regularly for his club so he would be fresh for Brazil. Whether that was merely Cabaye finding a clever excuse failing to establish himself in the first team at the Parc des Princes following his January move from Newcastle United remains to be seen.


Definition of success 


Who knows what we'll see from the French. No one expected them to reach the World Cup final in 2006, while everyone expected them to do well at the 2008 Euros and 2010 World Cup. Those tournaments ended in desperate disappointment and, in the latter case, disgrace following the "bus of shame" incident in Knysna when players went on strike to protest Nicolas Anelka's exclusion.

The current squad undoubtedly has the potential to reach the last eight, perhaps even the semifinals, and should breeze through one of the easiest groups on paper. Switzerland, Honduras and Ecuador should pose little obstacle to Deschamps' side in Group E, easing them nicely into the tournament.

Following the 2010 Cup debacle and a Euro 2012 marred by ill discipline from a number of high-profile players (Nasri, Hatem Ben Arfa and Jeremy Menez), the French public would first like their squad to do them proud with their behaviour and attitude before succeeding out on the pitch.


 How far will France go? 


All we can be certain of is they will cross the Atlantic. Going farther than that depends on Deschamps keeping his squad together.

ESPN FC Analysts' take: Michael Ballack

Les Bleus are always unpredictable. This year, it's even more important for France to represent their home country well in such a big tournament because they can't give the same image that they did four years ago. Individually, they have great and talented players, and it's a good mix, but they have to be a unit. That will determine whether they will be successful.

For France, it's not whether they can play with one striker or two, or if they can play from behind. It's more a question of attitude. An inability to put egos in the pocket and play for the country and do their best is the weakness of this team. It will be interesting to see how they can adjust their mindsets.

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