France have the components on paper to make it a successful defence of a trophy they lifted in 2018. No European side has ever raised Jules Rimet in consecutive editions – could this be the first?
Europe should see few troubles as the Round of 16 gets closer to kick-off following the culmination of Group D, though try telling that to a Socceroo side that performs at its best under the veil of underdog status.
The Aussies limped through the qualifying stages, needing to overcome two play-off matches to ensure their spot in Group C. Nonetheless, Australia certainly knew where the net was in AFC qualification. The 15 goals scored ranked them as Asia’s top scorers in Round 3 Group B, overshadowing Japan and Saudi Arabia, who clinched the top two automatic spots.
A 15.1xG total ushered in the 15 goals. Only Japan’s 16.7xG bettered Graham Arnold’s Australia team in front of goal. However, perhaps the xGA underlying metrics is the best place to start to see how the trio of top sides were separated in the end. The Socceroos’ 11.4xGA was, far and away, worse off than Japan (4.0xGA) and Saudi Arabia (7.9xGA).
Australia’s leaky backline would oversee a third-place finish and pencil in a subsequent fourth-round AFC play-off. The United Arab Emirates were then dispatched 1-2 in April, deciding which Asian side would approach a South American team populating the inter-continental play-off final.
The nation in question presenting the final obstacle for Australia? Peru. Well, a 0-0 followed, as did penalties and an Andrew Redmayne save. It harvested jubilant scenes from the weary Australian legs on the field, as well as rapturous celebration back home.
That Redmayne save meant that Australia qualified for their sixth World Cup. The Socceroos have fallen at the initial group stage hurdle in four of their previous five World Cup outings. You’d have to cast your mind back to 2006 for their last and only progression from this stage, where they met eventual winners, Italy.
In fact, Australia have faced nations who would go on to win the tournament in three of their five of their last outings at the World Cup. But, with third-favourites France pitted in a group with the Aussies, that’s a continuing theme threatening to rear its head again. Well, Australia have an opportunity to alter the French’s course when the pair meet for Group D’s curtain-raiser.
The Euro 2020 finals saw the actions of the Danish national team reverberate around the world of football and beyond as Christian Eriksen lay fighting for his life on the freshly cut grass in Copenhagen.
It reminded everyone in that instance that football is nothing but a game, but it is also something that can be harnessed and used as a tool to galvanise a nation.
With Eriksen firmly etched into the thoughts and prayers of all involved, the Danes surged to the semi-final. That fight, grit, and desire saw them saunter through the World Cup qualification stage. Only Scotland to get near to the Danes, finishing four points adrift.
Nine wins out of nine secured World Cup status. The final group game was lost to a Scotland side with a bit between their teeth. Yet, with qualification wrapped up, Kasper Hjulmand’s Denmark had done their job. Kasper Schmeichel, Simon Kjaer, and company oversaw eight clean sheets from ten games in a ringing endorsement for Denmark’s steeliness at the back. That’s remarkable. Eight clean sheets stand as the highest clean sheet tally in European qualification.
Andreas Skov Olsen exited World Cup qualifying as the Danes’ most influential in forward areas. The eight goals and assists pipped Mikkel Daamsgaard (6) and Joachim Maehle (5), proving their worth to the Danish international set-up.
Since qualification, four out of six matches in the Nations League ended with a win. The home and away triumphs versus fellow Group D participants, France, are included in said four victories. If the performances against the French are anything to go by, there’s no reason Denmark won’t be targeting a first-place finish in the group stages.
France arrives in Qatar equipped with the Ballon d’Or winner upfront, Kylian Mbappé to accompany him, and a midfield usually decked out in Real Madrid Galactico white. It’s imposing, to say the least, for the rest of Group D. Admittedly, it’s a side that will frighten even the most prominent of nations.
Speaking of prominent nations, the 2022 World Cup is reigning champions France’s 16th appearance in total and their seventh in a row. So, can the French mastermind back-to-back World Cup wins? Well, that’s something only seen once before, as Brazil swatted away country after country in 1958 and 1962.
France’s route to Qatar was a World Cup qualification group with Ukraine and Finland as the sternest tests. Deschamps’ men navigated it unbeaten, though draws against Bosnia and Ukraine on two occasions meant it wasn’t as dominating as it should have been.
Antoine Greizmann (5), Kylian Mbappé (4), and Karim Benzema (3) were the only players to find the net more than once in qualifying, acting as France’s main threats in front of goal. PSG’s star boy, Mbappé, recorded a 3.69 shots per90 average across 5.2 90s, showcasing his desire to fire his country to Qatar.
The next most frivolous with his shooting boots was Paul Pogba’s 2.62 per90. It’s a lofty total from midfield and one they’ll have to do without in the upcoming tournament as Pogba struggles on the sidelines with injury.
It’s Didier Deschamps’ fifth consecutive major tournament in the dugout. Intriguingly, France’s head honcho makes up a third of a select group of people to win the World Cup as both a player and a manager, with Mário Zagallo and Franz Beckenbauer as the other two. Deschamps, who used to perform with the captain’s armband for his country, undoubtedly has the talent at his disposal to muster a third French World Cup victory.
Worryingly for the Tunisians, they’ve lost 60% of World Cup matches throughout their previous five World Cup appearances. The 9/15 games where they’ve fallen to defeat is the third-highest percentage behind Australia (63%) and Saudi Arabia (69%).
However, all three have the opportunity to right some wrongs in Qatar after the often losing trio all qualify for the initial group stage. In Tunisia’s 15 World Cup matches, they’ve only managed to keep a clean sheet on one occasion, 0-0 versus Germany in 1978.
In World Cup qualifying, though, Tunisia tasted defeat just once as they progressed through a group of Mauritania, Zambia, and Equatorial Guinea. Eleven goals and two conceded represents an impressive but expected showing in a group that Tunisia was always expected to waltz through. Wahbi Khazri of Montpellier, formerly an 11.8m signing at Sunderland, produced three strikes to propel his country towards the play-offs.
From there, a crunch double-header with Mali set up a tie to propose who would make it to FIFA’s flagship international tournament. Moussa Sissako’s red card in the 40th minute of the first leg came four minutes after his unfortunate own goal gave Tunisia the lead. Mali held on to the 0-1 deficit, though couldn’t break the deadlock in Tunisia as a ‘bore’ draw decided the fate of either nation.
Make no bones about it, Tunisia are in for a rough ride in Group D. The bookmaker’s price of 4/1 to qualify suggests just that. Yet, at 5/1, Australia are deemed to take the whipping boys status. If that’s to be accurate and Tunisia can produce a result against The Socceroos, progression from the group stage in Qatar may not be such a distant longing after all.
It seems obvious that Tunisia and Australia will become the whipping boys of the group, at least that’s what the odds suggest anyway. A straight forecast of France to win the group with the Danes finishing as runners-up is a great bet.
Yes, Denmark did beat France twice in the Nations League. And yes, they’re a top side. However, this is a completely different kettle of fish and a stage where we’ll see Benzema and Mbappe well at it.
France’s fearsome array of talent, especially towards the front, will be well fancied to rack up a hatful of goals against Tunisia and the Aussies. They’ll just need to avoid defeat against Denmark, a match in which they go in as odds-on favourites to get three points.
Group D – 1st: France / 2nd: Denmark
How and where to watch each match:
DEN vs TUN – 22nd November – 13:00 (ITV)
FRA vs AUS – 22nd November – 19:00 (BBC One)
TUN vs AUS – 26th November – 10:00 (BBC One)
FRA vs DEN – 26th November – 16:00 (ITV)
TUN vs FRA – 30th November – 15:00 (BBC TBC)
AUS vs DEN – 30th November – 15:00 (BBC TBC)