World Cup 2018

World Cup preview: Can playoff sides make France’s Group C life difficult?

 • by Mark Thompson
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A quirk of fate means that Group C contains half of the six nations who qualified for the World Cup via the playoffs.

France, the only team not to have to go through that last chance saloon, will be thanking their lucky stars for the draw. A talented squad hasn’t quite set the world alight, and World Cup disasters of times gone by must have be lingering in the back of the collective Gallic mind.

With the internet bringing the world closer together, a lot is known about most of the sides at this World Cup. It’s refreshing, then, that Denmark, Peru, and Australia will be largely unfamiliar sides to most viewers.

Reported Barcelona transfer target Christian Eriksen aside, none have major emblematic icons, and new, exciting talents can be discovered.

It should also be a desperately tight race to make it to the round of 16, making each match a vital one.

France

One of the favourites to win the World Cup, France have been underwhelming in pre-tournament friendlies. This culminated in a drab 1-1 draw against the United States, which left many questioning Les Bleus’ potential to win the World Cup.

Though the squad is full of talent – and by full, it is full – manager Didier Deschamps has rarely managed to arrange them into a system which takes full advantage of their incredibly exciting potential.

A potential forward line of Antoine Griezmann, Ousmane Dembélé, and Kylian Mbappé could be a holy trinity of blistering goal-mouth threat, and yet the French so often seem plodding.

France are also a nation prone to a World Cup implosion. In 2002, when they were tournament holders, they crashed out in the group with a single point and they did the same again in 2010.

In fact, since 1994, they’ve been on a run of boom-and-bust. They failed to qualify for the first American World Cup in 1994 before winning the next on home soil, then came failure in Japan and South Korea and a final in Germany. Another implosion in South Africa, followed by a quarter-final appearance where they only lost 1-0 against the eventual champions Germany, completes the sequence until now.

Are they due une catastrophe?

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Key stats

France are characterised by crossing to a surprising extent for a top international side. Five per cent of all their attempted passes in qualifying were crosses, and only Australia in their group (5.1 per cent) had a higher rate.

They were unsurprisingly comfortable in qualifying, losing only to Sweden, and that courtesy of a Hugo Lloris gift – who also qualified via the playoffs – and scoring 1.8 goals per game.

Key player

France’s squad is full of stars, but as the top-scorer and top-assister for the country in qualifying, Antoine Griezmann is clearly the key player.

Between his own shots and those he set up for others, Griezmann contributed 4.74 shots per 90 minutes on France’s way to Russia.

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Peru

After France, who makes it out of Group C is anyone’s guess. Data company Opta’s prediction puts Peru and Australia neck-and-neck, with Denmark only marginally behind them.

The Peruvians were one of the last nations to qualify, beating New Zealand in an intercontinental playoff last November.

The victory – courtesy of a 2-0 second leg win in Lima – made it the first World Cup that the country will be at since 1982, although they could quite easily have had to wait much longer.

Peru only made it into the CONMEBOL playoff spot by virtue of having a better goal difference than Chile, but their 3-0 victory against Bolivia midway through qualifying was actually a 2-0 defeat. News came through that the Bolivians had fielded an ineligible player so Peru were awarded the win, the three points, and the three goals, and the rest is history.

They go into the World Cup on an unbeaten run of 15 games, a record for the nation, and will be hoping to continue it in their opener against Denmark, although the next game against France might prove more of a challenge.

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Key stats

Peru conceded 11 shots per game in qualifying, the fourth-worst record of the 31 teams who went through that process (Russia, of course, qualified automatically as hosts).

Their unbeaten run included recent wins against Croatia, Iceland, and Saudi Arabia, so they will be confident that they can pick up points against Australia and Denmark at the very least.

Key player

Peru are a true team, rather than collection of stars, but André Carrillo – who spent the season on loan at Watford – is one of the important cogs.

Expect him to be one of the ways his side progress the ball – he made 2.49 successful take-ons per 90, the third-highest rate of any South American who will be at the World Cup.

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Australia

Australia were the other team to make it through the intercontinental playoffs, beating Honduras to book their place to Russia.

This will be the fourth consecutive World Cup the Aussies have featured in, an impressive feat for a nation who had only appeared once before 2006, in 1974.

However, they’ll be led at the World Cup by a different man than the one who got them there. Ange Postecoglou, who had coached Australia in the 2014 World Cup as well, announced his resignation two weeks after qualification, citing the personal and professional toll the job had taken on him.

Dutchman Bert van Marwijk – fresh from leaving his post as manager of Saudi Arabia – was announced as the replacement for the tournament this summer, although Graham Arnold will take over afterwards to be a long-term option for the Socceroos.

The golden generation of Australian footballing talent is behind them, and they are so short of fresh talent that 38-year-old Tim Cahill is in the squad. Huddersfield Town playmaker Aaron Mooy, Aston Villa enforcer Mile Jedinak, and Celtic star Tom Rogic are probably their key talents now, although they have promising youngsters like Daniel Arzani coming through.

Australia have only made it out of their group once in their past four World Cup appearances, reaching the round of 16 in 2006, but they will fancy their chances this time.

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Key stats

Australia had a mammoth qualifying campaign compared to most. With the various stages of Asia’s qualification system, as well as the playoffs, they played 22 games.

They’re a surprisingly aggressive defensive side, allowing fewer than ten pass attempts per tackle and interception made – one of the most intense rates of any side who will be at the World Cup.

Key player

Although 11 Cahill goals helped the Socceroos to Russia, the key man for Australia is likely to be Mooy.

The Huddersfield midfielder got nine assists in qualifying and was instrumental for the team. He created 2.17 shots per 90 minutes from open play and a further 1.86 from set pieces, as well as getting off an average of 2.42 shots per 90 of his own.

If Australia are going to get out of Group C, they will be relying on him playing well.

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Denmark

After failing to qualify for Euro 2016, Denmark faced a situation that they hadn’t for a decade and a half – the need to find a new manager. Long-time coach Morten Olsen stepped down, but Norwegian Åge Hareide ably stepped into the role.

Denmark have two sides to them. They failed to beat Romania during qualifying, and lost 1-0 to Montenegro. But they also demolished Poland 4-0 in Copenhagen as well as going to the Republic of Ireland in the playoffs and beating them 5-1.

The furthest the 1992 European champions have gone at the World Cup was the quarter-finals in 1998 when they traded blows with eventual runners-up Brazil to lose 3-2.

Aiming for that stage this time around would be ambitious to say the least, but with sprinklings of talent across each area of the pitch they could easily make it to the round of 16.

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Key stats

Denmark defend high up the pitch, unlike their Nordic nations Sweden and Iceland. In qualifying, more than ten per cent of their possession regains came in their attacking third, the third-highest rate of any of the 31 countries who went through qualifying.

Key man

However, they may be slightly reliant on Eriksen. The Tottenham star played every single minute of their twelve matches, including the two playoff legs.

Unsurprisingly, given his talent, he topped the goal-scoring and assist charts for Denmark, netting 11 and setting up three, as well as setting up over three shots per 90 minutes.

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Standout fixture

It’s tough to choose between what could all be entertaining matches, but with what could be such a close group, one of the final fixtures looks like the standout.

Australia play Peru and Denmark play France on Tuesday June 26 at 3pm. With France liable to tripping themselves up, any of the four sides might need points. Get a split-screen on at work.

Prediction

  1. France
  2. Peru
  3. Denmark
  4. Australia

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