Feature

Bert’s magical mystery tour - first stop Kazan

The French national team, where technique meets imagination, athleticism and execution. If it strikes harmony it’s a breathtaking football package, but France’s oft-times missing ingredient, “mentality”, is what Australia will look to exploit in Kazan.

Signs of this were evident in European qualifying, scoreless draws at home to Luxembourg and away in Belarus, a loss to Sweden in Stockholm led coach Didier Deschamps to question his team’s ability to control opponents and manage difficult situations throughout the campaign.

More recently they outclassed Colombia in an opening 25 minutes of sublime football in Paris and then without warning switched from magical to meek, seeing a two-goal lead fizzle into a 3-2 loss. They can be beaten. And, more importantly, they can beat themselves.

It is another golden generation of talent for Les Blues that has not yet realised championship success. Raphael Varane and Samuel Umtiti have a chance to create a Blanc-Desailly France 98 aura in the centre of defence.

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The midfield pivot N’Golo Kante’s insatiable appetite to close down space allows Paul Pogba the freedom to push into attacking areas and combine with the frightening trio of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe and Olivier Giroud.

With an embarrassment of quality other coaches envy, it’s the attacking third where coach Didier Deschamps has his biggest selection dilemma.

Dimitri Payet’s dream appears to be over after the Marseille winger broke down with a hamstring injury during the UEFA Europa league final loss to Atletico Madrid. The sight of France teammate and Atleti striker Griezmann consoling a distraught Payet was raw emotion in the high stakes of FIFA World Cup ambition.



Will Deschamps favour Alexandre Lacazette who’s never been convincing at international level, or the more precocious Anthony Martial, Kingsley Coman or Thomas Lemar?

When assessing Australia’s chances Bert van Marwijk was direct, if not decidedly unambitious. “Against France you maybe lose 9 or 9.5 times; I want to get in a situation we can improve this to 6 or 6.5, so we have a chance”

"I like to play offensive football. But I also like to win. I will not hesitate to take decisions in games that I think I can win in another way."

The Dutchman is the type of coach to ask questions of France’s resolve. He will look to enforcer Mile Jedinak to infuse self-belief amongst the Socceroos, to stay disciplined, focused and aggressive is closing down space.

Massimo Luongo, coming off an outstanding season with QPR, believes the players will turn the low expectation of Australia getting out of the group into a positive.

“I think they all look at us as, maybe, the weakest side in the group," Luongo said. "We use that to our advantage ... we've been the underdog before."

The question is: can Australia expose the French mentality in game one, under the harshest spotlight, to make an impact?

It is near impossible to see a come from behind result for Australia if France build momentum. Lead and hang on will be the order of the day.



Denmark

There’s a saying in Denmark: there were two Laudrup’s, but there’s only one Eriksen.

“There’s also a level of anxiety as to how reliant the national team is on Eriksen’s gifts,” according to Danish Broadcasting Corporation commentator Adreas Kraul.

The Tottenham star was arguably the most influential of any player in European World Cup qualifying with 11 goals in 12 matches including a hat-trick in the deciding playoff match in Dublin to bury the Republic of Ireland's hopes.

Under former coach Morten Olsen who demanded tactical rigidity, Eriksen scored only one goal in 23 qualifiers or tournament matches. He’s been transformed under Age Hareide. The Norwegian has allowed a South American type freedom that Eriksen’s been crying out for, other players too have also been released from the shackles of a tight structure.

Midfield partner and Bundesliga-based Thomas Delaney is a box-to-box operator with thunder in his left boot and a superb passing range. In Pione Sisto, the Dane’s have a winger with untapped potential who slips into dangerous pockets of space and is the perfect foil for robust target man Nicolai Jorgensen and the classy Eriksen.

Worryingly, Sisto’s dribbling skills and the ability to beat players is in just the area of the pitch Australia is struggling to find an answer to, the right-back role.

The biggest concerns for Denmark come from their most robust players. Captain Simon Kjaer for country and club (Sevilla) has displayed superb positioning, anticipation and strength. He was outstanding in Sevilla’s famous 2-1 win over Manchester United at Old Trafford in March.

But a knee injury has seen him miss six of the last seven matches in La Liga. Centre-half partner Andreas Bjelland has a great understanding with his skipper but is a slow defender by international standards. With question marks over Kjaer and Andreas Christensen’s indifferent form for the national team, the heart of Denmark’s defence is a zone Australia will aim to exploit.

A question mark also hangs over vice-captain William Kvist. Shut out of FC Copenhagen’s starting XI, the 33-year holding midfielder desperately needs game time and there’s growing fan unrest in Denmark demanding that Hareide break from loyalty and drop Kvist for Lasse Schone who’s been a regular starter for Ajax in the Eredivisie.

If the Socceroos can control the midfield for long enough then the quality of supply to Denmark’s match-winners will be compromised. Van Marwijk will also look to his pacey attacking options to expose any weakness in the Danish back four - it’s a scenario that will give Australia it’s best possible chance.



Peru

Peru’s qualification against New Zealand in the playoffs released a generation of frustration after 36 years in the World Cup wilderness. We know how it feels don’t we, the Aloisi moment, football euphoria. From their high in Lima, Argentine coach Ricardo Gareca has shown the South Americans to be more dimensional than we perhaps thought.

In their recent US tour, sharp pressing and clever transitional play disrupted Croatia’s rhythm. Peru were less effective in game two against an Iceland team that had a better defensive structure and were strong from set-pieces, which offers Australia hope.

In full-backs Luis Advincula and Miguel Trauco, Peru generate loads of attacking thrust. Managing that horsepower is the organisation of Dutch-based holding midfielder Renato Tapia, he simply keeps things together dropping deep when wide men push forward and becoming the change agent when facing forward.

It is the movement of Peru’s most advanced players that is so impressive. Andre Carrillo’s ability to cut in from either wing, Christian Cueva’s vision and passing in the middle and the ageless Jefferson Farfan, who can be deployed as the focal point in attack and even more dangerously as a wide threat.

There will be a much greater reliance on Farfan after Peru’s greatest goalscorer had his dreams shattered this week. Paolo Guerrero has been on a World Cup roller-coaster since testing positive for cocaine following a qualifier in Argentina last October.

He was out of the World Cup in early December, then back in just two weeks later after his 12-month drugs ban was reduced to six, only to be finally killed off this week by WADA’s appeal.

During the playoffs Peru enshrined Guerrero, inspiring the playing group to qualification. The country could now bestow football martyrdom on their captain to create a spiritual 12th man in Russia.

For a team in World Cup qualifying that drew with Argentina home and away, smashed Bolivia at altitude 3-0 and claimed their first ever win in the rarefied air of Quito against Ecuador, Peru represents a huge challenge for the Socceroos in their final group match in Sochi.

But, having gained significant experience against Uruguay in recent decades, and Chile in recent years, Australia will know that Peru represent a strong possibility for points.




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8 min read
Published 17 May 2018 at 4:14pm
By David Basheer