Five things to watch: Socceroos v France

The Socceroos’ 2018 FIFA World Cup campaign begins in Kazan on Saturday (7pm AEST), with Australia facing a highly-rated France side. Here are five things to keep an eye on.

Arzani griezmann Jedinak

From left - Daniel Arzani, Antoine Griezmann and Mile Jedinak Source: Getty Images

According to new manager Bert van Marwijk, the Australian national team has one objective in Russia.

“Our first goal is to survive the first round,” he said.

If only the task was so simple.

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The Socceroos’ path to the round of 16 is treacherous, and it starts in Kazan against world number seven-ranked France.

From midfield uncertainty to Daniel Arzani, the French strike-force and early concentration, here is what to watch out for at the Kazan Arena.

Midfield Dilemmas

The midfield is where van Marwijk has the most options and, consequently, the most headaches.

Against the Czech Republic, the Dutchman started Aaron Mooy and Massimo Luongo in the centre, with Tom Rogic deployed in an advanced position.

Van Marwijk kept with this formation a week later for the Hungary friendly, but the team looked much improved following the replacement of Rogic and Luongo with Mile Jedinak and Jackson Irvine in the second half.

On Friday the Sydney Morning Herald suggested that Luongo would start while Jedinak was set to remain on the bench, drawing inferences from the latter’s late withdrawal from the pre-match press conference.

But van Marwijk was tight-lipped about his plans.

“No,” said van Marwijk with a quiet chuckle when asked whether Jedinak’s absence indicated he would not start.

“For me it is good that sometimes another player is sitting next to me. It is good for the experience of the players. And [the media] see a new face. It is nothing to do with [team selection].”

Wonder kid

19-year-old Daniel Arzani was the surprise selection in the World Cup squad, and went some way to vindicating his berth with a pre-tournament goal against Hungary.

Although inexperienced, there is every chance Arzani will be thrown in as a substitute if Australia are lacking creative spark.

“We took him with us because he is a big talent and he can make the difference,” van Marwijk explained on Friday.

With Tim Cahill, Dimitri Petratos and whichever of Andrew Nabbout, Tomi Juric and Jamie Maclaren do not start, the Socceroos have a multitude of attacking options on the bench.

France’s forward line

Les Bleus have a fearsome forward line.

Kylian Mbappé, Antoine Griezmann, Olivier Giroud, Ousmane Dembélé and Nabil Fekir all possess the ability to cause nightmares for the Socceroos’ defensive unit.

How Didier Deschamps thins this abundance of riches into his starting XI remains to be seen.

There has been some speculation that Mbappé and Dembélé will take centre stage alongside Griezmann, arguably Deschamps’ lynchpin.

Mbappé was the subject of a fitness scare during the week, going down after a heavy challenge from Adil Rami on Tuesday.

Unfortunately for Australian fans, a day later Mbappé declared he was “100 percent fit.”

Fitness

If Australia are to beat or draw with France, it will require an immense team performance.

“We must be very well-organised,” said van Marwijk. “Not only for five or 10 or 20 or 30 minutes, but 90 minutes plus added time.

“We must be very fit, physically and in the head.”

Thankfully the Socceroos, after almost a month in camp, are in peak physical condition; van Marwijk has praised Football Federation Australia for dispensing with the traditional World Cup farewell match and allowing the squad to remain in one place. 

The manager told the press that all 23 of his players were injury-free and available for selection, although Petratos trained away from the main group on Friday without explanation.

Early concentration

The opening passage of Saturday’s encounter could prove critical to the outcome of the match.

If France score early, the Socceroos’ campaign could be over before it really begins.

But the longer Australia can keep the star-studded French attack quiet, the more nerves that will creep into France’s play and the greater likelihood of mistakes.

The first 56 minutes of France’s clash with Romania to open the 2016 European Championships was indicative: as the game wore on, Les Bleus scrambled and gifted Romania numerous chances.

While that match ended with a 2-1 win to the French, if Mat Ryan and his backline can keep France scoreless until midway through the second half the team’s chances will be looking up.

Australia allowed Lukas Podolski to score for Germany after just eight minutes in the opening match of South Africa 2010.

In 2014, Alexis Sanchez netted for the Chileans after 12 minutes in the Socceroos’ first encounter of that World Cup.

Both matches ended poorly for Australia – 4-0 and 3-1 respectively.

If van Marwijk’s team is to have any chance of progressing from the group stage in Russia, the same cannot happen for a third time on Saturday.




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Published 16 June 2018 at 11:14am
By Kieran Pender in Kazan