No signs of the holders’ curse as France came from behind to beat Australia

France 4

Australia 1

FRANCE, UNWORRIED BY the shadows of either injury or history, opened their World Cup defense with a 4-1 win over Australia.

Their injury list would smithereen most other countries at this World Cup – Kante, Pogba, Benzema, Nkunku, Varane and now Lucas Hernandez – while they are also stalked by a curious omen: the last four European defenders of the World Cup have gone out of the group stage, a trend France themselves started in 2002.

And for eighteen minutes it seemed these malignant fates might just align, as France toiled and fell behind to Craig Goodwin’s opening goal. And for those minutes it seemed that we might be about to witness the World Cup’s greatest upset since this afternoon, the champions potentially laid low by an Australian side without key creator Ajdin Hrustic and a defense assembled of players based at Hearts, Stoke and Dundee United .

But then Kylian Mbappe caught fire, either scoring or making possible the goals France scored after Adrien Rabiot hauled them level.

The game was again played out to the disconcerting sight of swathes of empty seats at the, eh, suggestively, designed Al Janoub Stadium.

Perhaps the men supposed to attend could not find the stadium without some guidance. And in their defense, it was dark.

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The Al Janoub Stadium.

Source: Alamy Stock Photo

Australia took their stunning lead after seven minutes. Matthew Leckie drove down the right wing and was skipped by Lucas Hernandez before whipping in a sweetly-measured cross to Craig Goodwin at the back post, who rifled his shot into the roof of the net. Hernandez lay crumpled on the ground as the Australian players shared in their slightly baffled ecstasy. Hernandez was helped off, replaced by his brother Theo.

France were very sloppy, their second-choice midfield of Aurelin Tchoumaeni and Adrien Rabiot left oceans of space around them which was often exploited by French passing. At one point Theo Hernandez laid the ball back for Australia striker Mitchell Duke, who sent a long-range shot whistling just beyond Hugo Lloris’ crossbar.

Australia manager Graham Arnold has talked about going back to Aussie DNA – think of it as Put ’em under pressure delivered with a sunnier tone – and here they flew into tackles, Jackson Irvine at one point sprinting from his box to crunch into Tchoumaeni. That the ball came back off the Frenchman and won Australia a throw-in earned a cheer as loud as Goodwin’s goal.

But then France were level with a devastating swish of Theo Hernandez’ left foot, his sumptuous cross meeting Rabiot’s head in the penalty area. Five minutes later they were ahead and all hopes of another shock were extinguished, the goal owing to Rabiot’s industry and Kylian Mbappe’s deft class. Rabiot hunted the ball down and the ball rebounded to Mbappe, who brilliantly flicked the ball first time to Rabiot, who broke into the box and pulled the ball back for Olivier Giroud. He didn’t miss, to give France the lead but perhaps an uneasy omen. On their two previous World Cup wins, their striker didn’t score at all: first Stéphane Guivarc’h in 1998 and then Giroud four years ago.

On the other hand, France can be heartened by the performance of the oft-derided Rabiot, whose prior performances for France have often given the impression that Didier Deschamps had just handed boots and a French jersey to the first barista he met on South William Street .

Mbappe, meanwhile, came alive, exchanging back heels with Theo Hernandez before he missed inexplicably from three yards out. It was a flowing move, as Giroud dropped off and Antoine Griezmann ran in behind the Australia defense, steering the ball square for the arriving Mbappe, who drew the crowd’s breath by spooning the ball between them.

Stephen Kenny is due in Qatar to scout France ahead of the Euro 2024 qualifiers and he will have zoned in on Griezmann’s performance: here he played in the Number 10 role of France’s 4-2-3-1 but roamed freely, his intuitive understanding with Giroud the tinder that ignites Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele outside of them. Giroud was typically magnificent, putting a bicycle kick just wide in the opening minutes of the second half. France looks a much better team with him in the team, so there is more than a silver lining to Karim Benzema’s injury.

To say France are better without the Ballon D’Or holder seems absurd, but Benzema has been a slightly discomfiting fit in this France team, one rapier too many. Giroud’s repertoire shows he is acrobatic but he is equally so in a positional sense, constantly drifting into strange locations and contorting his body to wave his more lethal strikers through.

That fact is what has often earned this France side little more than grudging respect, their sheer commitment to common sense and disavowal of gratuity never quite capturing the heart. They always appear to be a side deliberately withholding, fingers playing with the handbrake, never showing their true attacking potential. That can also breed a strange complacency, and France left the first-half with a sharp warning when Irvine rose to direct a header against the post.

Gavin Cooney
Reports From Qatar

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Kylian Mbappe.

Source: Xinhua News Agency/PA Images

France coasted through the opening exchanges of the second half until they decided to settle the game. Theo Hernandez drove to the end and pulled the back for Griezmann, whose shot was brilliantly hacked off the line. Minutes later Mbappe ran down the left wing but got his angles wrong, flashing the ball across the post but keeping it in play. There it was met by Dembele who stood a cross into the box where, this time, Mbappe got his maths right with a kind of Pythagorean perfection, glancing a stunning header off the post and into the net.

Soon it was four: Mbappe shredding poor Nathaniel Atkinson by the touchline to cross for Giroud. Only a flying Matt Ryan save prevented a fifth goal before the end, but France truly declared at four.

The rest of the World Cup won’t care about Ireland’s pre-Euro 2024 qualifier uneasiness, as they will be too busy worrying about France themselves.

France: Hugo Lloris; Benjamin Pavard (Jules Kounde, 89′), Ibrahima Konate, Dayot Upamecano, Lucas Hernandez (Theo Hernandez, 13′); Aurelin Tchoumaeni (Youssouf Fofana, 77′) Adrien Rabiot; Ousmane Dembele (Kingsley Coman, 77′), Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappe; Olivier Giroud (Marcus Thuram, 89′)

Australia: Matt Ryan (captain); Nathaniel Atkinson (Milos Degnek, 85′), Harry Souttar, Kye Rowles, Aziz Behich; Aaron Mooy, Riley McGree (Awer Mabil, 73′), Jackson Irvine (Keanu Baccus, 85′); Mathew Leckie, Mitchell Duke (Jason Cummings, 56′) (Jason Cummings, 56′), Craig Goodwin (Garang Kuol, 74′)

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