World Cup 2018

Va-Va-Um: French pair driving Les Bleus to glory

 • by Matt Gault
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Down the years, great France sides have been elevated by some of the finest defenders the game has ever seen.

In 1998, Aimé Jacquet had three centre-backs of genuinely world-class ability in Laurent Blanc, Frank Leboeuf and Marcel Desailly. The full-backs, Lilian Thuram and Bixente Lizarazu, weren’t too shabby either.

The 1986 side had a formidable pairing at the heart of defence, too, in Maxime Bossis and Patrick Battiston. In 2006, Thuram – who had been deployed as a right-back in 1998 – and William Gallas only conceded just two goals en route to the final.

In Russia, Didier Deschamps has been able to place his trust in Raphaël Varane and Samuel Umtiti. With a combined age of 49 (Varane is 25, Umtiti 24) they are a relatively young partnership but have shown maturity and leadership beyond their years in guiding Les Bleus to a third World Cup final in 20 years.

Formidable French defence

Varane has a wealth of experience in those 25 years. The Real Madrid defender started four of France’s five games at the 2014 World Cup and, while he missed Euro 2016 because of a thigh injury, he started in three of Real’s four Champions League finals since 2014 (the one he missed was in 2016 due to the same thigh problem).

Umtiti, too, is no stranger to big games. Strangely, his France debut came in the Euro 2016 quarter-final win over Iceland and he has won a La Liga title with Barcelona.

Although they have N’Golo Kanté for protection, the Varane-Umtiti rearguard has been remarkably effective.

Manchester United transfer target Varane has played every minute of the campaign, while Umtiti was rested for the final group stage game against Denmark, with Presnel Kimpembe deputising.

Umtiti has had one moment of madness, inexplicably using his arm to clear a cross which resulted in a penalty to Australia in France’s opener.

The 4-3 win over Argentina was a chaotic, breathless encounter in which both defences struggled under the sheer emphasis on attack. In the quarter and semi-final against Uruguay and Belgium respectively, however, the Umtiti-Varane axis proved insuperable.

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In the Uruguay game, Varane was immense, making seven clearances and winning an incredible seven aerial battles. He also breached Uruguay’s own mean defensive partnership of Diego Godín and José Gimenez, meeting Antoine Griezmann’s free-kick with an unerring glancing header into the far corner.

Umtiti followed suit. Having faced intense pressure from Belgium during the first 45 minutes of an absorbing semi-final, he rose highest to meet Griezmann’s corner, his goal proving the difference as France reached another final.

Even if Varane and Umtiti can’t guide France to the World Cup on Sunday, by the time Qatar 2022 rolls around, they will be 29 and 28 respectively; undoubtedly more seasoned and arguably at their peak. Add to that Mbappé at 23, Pogba at 29 and the dazzling cohort of emerging French talent and it becomes easier to imagine a France-dominated international scene over the next decade.

Can France expose Croatia’s weak-link?

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At the other end of the pitch, Dejan Lovren and Everton transfer target Domagoj Vida will be hoping to continue their own productive partnership but there will certainly be concerns about Ivan Strinić.

The 30-year-old left-back has often been his country’s scapegoat but criticism of the AC Milan defender is not entirely misplaced. Strinić has been substituted in Croatia’s last three games and struggled against Kieran Trippier and Raheem Sterling on Wednesday night.

Strinić’s assignment on Sunday? Stopping Mbappé. It seems a tactical inevitability that Deschamps will target the left-back and, although Zlatko Dalić will instruct Ivan Perišić to fulfil his defensive duties and offer support to Strinić, one suspects he may, at some point, be exposed in a one-on-one against France’s flying forward.

With Benjamin Pavard and Griezmann on that same flank, there is a strong possibility of France looking to overload and focus on breaking Strinić down.

Croatia will have prepared meticulously for a possible Mbappé-led onslaught and will aim to keep it tight. The Paris Saint-Germain star comes alive when the game gets stretched or when France have the chance to spring a counter-attack. If Croatia manage to avoid those scenarios, they have a chance of giving their astonishing story a fairytale conclusion.

That is as long as they can get past Varane and Umtiti, of course.

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