One of the highlights of a competition like the World Cup is the David and Goliath matchups the draw serves up.
In its tournament, Australia was handed champions France as an adversary, a sequel to when the two countries met in 2018. The quality gap could not be more significant on paper, with many French players missing out on selection that would comfortably start for the Socceroos.
Any discouragement Australia may have felt being drawn against the World Champions was contrasted with the optimism due to France’s poor form heading into the tournament and the apparent historical curse typically suffered by past defending champions.
Hours before kickoff, Australian fans allowed themselves to dream when fellow AFC country Saudi Arabia triumphed over Lionel Messi’s Argentina in one of the most staggering World Cup results in history.
France’s quality out wide was evident within the first couple of minutes of this encounter, with both Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé beating their fullbacks with ease and peppering Australia’s area with crosses. Despite the shaky start, Australia settled into the match well, consistently forcing turnovers in the middle of the field and forcing their fancied adversaries out wide.
A moment of brilliance turned the match on its head just before the 10th minute and it all began with an expertly played long ball from center back Harry Souttar to winger Matthew Leckie. Leckie’s control and subsequent silky touch completely threw off his marker which then allowed the winger to play the ball across the box.
The bobbling cross found Adelaide United captain Craig Goodwin who gave Hugo Lloris no choice but to watch the ball fly in the roof of his net.
Australia’s first World Cup goal from open play since Tim Cahill’s screamer against the Netherlands in 2014 took the attention away from a forced substitution for the French. Lucas Hernández suffered an injury during Australia’s goal and was subsequently replaced by brother Theo whose quality helped Les Bleus turn the game around.
Lucas Hernández may have started at left back, but he is a player that is comfortable at center back too, and is much more adept on the defensive side of the game. Theo on the other hand is one of the most skilled attacking fullbacks in world football and with Kylian Mbappé to support him on the left, it was always going to be a long day for Nathaniel Atkinson of Australia at right back.
Falling behind early only meant that the French were going to try and hit Australia harder. The champions had clearly identified the wide areas as a weakness for Australia and both Mbappé and Dembélé kept attacking Atkinson and Aziz Behich relentlessly, the fullbacks often requiring help from their wingers and center backs.
France’s domination out wide continued and that is exactly where the equaliser came from. After clearing a corner, Australia momentarily switched off which allowed substitute Theo Hernández the time and space to cross the ball and pick out an open Adrien Rabiot whose header left Mat Ryan helpless.
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With France gaining confidence after opening its account for the day, the Socceroos turned into architects of their own demise, with an ill-advised decision to play out from the back minutes later seeing Atkinson’s loose touch pounced on by Mbappé, the winger cutting the ball back on a silver platter for Olivier Giroud who made no mistake to give France the lead.
France continued working the wide areas and could have put the game beyond doubt in the first half, but left the door ajar after missing two key chances. It was clear that Didier Deschamp’s plan to beat Australia’s low block was through exploiting the wide areas and then cutting the ball back to the late runs of his attackers, something that Australia’s game plan had no answers for.
Australia’s brave start to the game was nowhere to be seen in the second half, as the Socceroos sat deep and did not show any willingness to advance. This played right into France’s hands, its technical and physical quality out wide meaning it would keep creating and theory of probability making it likely it would start converting.
Finding himself one on one against Behich out wide, Dembélé gave himself enough space to produce a dangerous cross that was duly converted by fellow winger Kylian Mbappé 23 minutes after the restart. The joy out wide continued for France, as Mbappé continued his torture of Nathaniel Atkinson by turning provider, giving Giroud a golden chance which the striker converted with his head, equalling Thierry Henry as France’s all-time goalscorer with 52 goals to put the cherry on top in what ended up being a comfortable win.
While France enters its match against Denmark with confidence in its firepower, Australian manager Graham Arnold has to ponder his fullback selection after both Atkinson and Behich suffered at the hands of Les Bleus.
Fran Karacic may not be the attacking threat Atkinson is, but is more defensively sound, with Thomas Deng, a natural center back, also capable on the right side of defence. On the left side, Australia has the inexperienced Joel King available, but Arnold could also consider goalscorer Craig Goodwin who was proven more than capable in the position in the past; this move could accommodate Awer Mabil as a starter.
As it showed against Denmark hours before Australia kicked off, Tunisia is no pushover. Regardless, Australia must enter the match with the belief it can win and tactics that match that attitude. If Australia wants any chance of qualifying for the Round of 16 for the first time since 2006, it must claim its first World Cup victory in over a decade against its North African opposition.
France on the other hand will be delighted to have seen Denmark falter against Tunisia and will look to exploit a loss of confidence in the Denmark camp and seal their place in the round of 16 with a game remaining.
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