France will kick off their 2018 World Cup campaign against underdogs Australia at the Kazan Arena on Saturday in Group C's opening match. It seems to be a mismatch on paper, with France being the overwhelming favourites to win Group C whilst Australia are not expected to leave much of an impression in Russia, with their squad lacking the quality they have enjoyed in recent years.
Former World Cup winners France cruised to victory in Group A of European qualifying, barring disappointing draws to minnows Belarus and Luxembourg and a defeat to Sweden. They finished four points ahead of Sweden and qualified automatically.
Australia had a much more difficult time to qualify for Russia, having to go through two play-offs to eventually book their place in Group C. The Socceroos were only able to finish third in group B of the third stage of Asian qualifying, meaning that they had to go into a Asian playoff against Syria. They avoided an upset and scraped through 3-2 on aggregate, setting up an intercontinental playoff against Honduras where a Mile Jedinak hat-trick in the second leg ensured that Australia would reach their fourth consecutive World Cup.
Last Six Matches:
France come into the World Cup on the back of some inconsistent performances. The most disappointing result came in the shape of a collapse of epic proportions against Colombia in March, when they threw away a 2-0 lead to lose 3-2.
Despite this, one thing that France can take away from their recent performances is that they can easily find the back of the net, even against strong teams such as Germany and Italy. Under Deschamps France managed to reach the Euro 2016 final so recent form aside, there will be huge expectations for France to kick off their campaign with a convincing win.
Australia have reason to be optimistic ahead of their opening match given their recent form, particularly in their warm-up matches over the last few months. They comfortably beat European sides Czech Republic and Hungary, showing that they are capable of competing against fairly capable sides. The only blip on their recent record was an embarrassing 4-1 defeat, demonstrating that although they are usually a resolute and organised side, they are also capable of capitulating.
World Cup Highlights
France have had an incredibly varied history in the World Cup and recent tournaments have seen them inexplicably crash out in the first round in both 2002 and 2006. However, these low points juxtapose the glorious World Cup triumph of 1998 when Les Bleus went on to lift the trophy on home soil.
They defeated the heavily favoured Brazil in the final, courtesy of two goals from Zinedine Zidane and a late third from Emmanuel Petit. It is now 20 years since they were crowned champions and they are the last side to win on home soil.
Australia, by contrast, do not have such a rich history at the World Cup, but they have previously played at four tournaments, which is impressive given their small status as a footballing nation. They have only progressed to the knockout stages on one occasion, during the 2006 World Cup in Germany.
The Soccerroos enjoyed somewhat of a 'golden generation' with Mark Schwarzer, Tim Cahill, Harry Kewell and Mark Viduka all being present. They made it through a difficult group against Brazil, Croatia and Japan. In the round of 16, Australia were narrowly beaten by eventual champions Italy, courtesy of a controversial 95th minute penalty.
France have been given a serious scare as their wonder kid Kylian Mbappe was injured in training after a clash with centre back Adil Rami. There is a sense of mystery surrounding the extent of the injury but the 19-year-old took to social media to allay any fears that the injury was serious.
This is the least of France's worries however, as L'Equipe are reporting that expected starting right back Djibril Sidibe will be absent through a long-term injury that he has yet to fully recover from. Youngster Benjamin Pavard is expected to fill his boots.
Australia look to have a fully fit squad to choose from with Premier League and Championship players Matthew Ryan, Mile Jedinak and Aaron Mooy all likely to feature. There is even a chance that 38-year-old veteran Tim Cahill could make a cameo appearance at what is set to be his fourth World Cup.
France (4-3-3): Lloris, Mendy, Varane, Umtiti, Pavard, Pogba, Kante, Matuidi, Dembele, Griezmann, Mbappe
Australia (4-2-3-1): Ryan, Behich, Sainsbury, Milligan, Risdon, Jedinak, Mooy, Nabbout, Rogic, Leckie, Juric
As the old cliche goes, you do not want to start off your World Cup campaign with a loss. Both sides will be acutely aware of this and is every chance that both sides will start this one nervously.
Didier Deschamps has arguably the strongest squad in Russia but question marks remain as to whether the numerous stars in the squad can work together cohesively. However, this is arguably the weakest Australia side of recent memory and anything other than a convincing win for France would be a major surprise.
If Australia are to salvage anything from their opening match, a lot will be resting on Mile Jedinak's ability to patrol the midfield in front of his defence and prevent France's attacking talents from being able to express themselves in front of goal.
There may well be a contrast in footballing philosophy's on show, but expect France to brush aside Australia as they look ahead to an extended stay in Russia.