What is it about the opening game? Nearing the 80 minute mark of their match against Australia, French fans everywhere would have been pondering this question, which rears its head at every major tournament. As they hadn’t in 2002, 2006 or 2010, things weren’t going to script for Les Bleus. The scores were tied, and the Australian defence was proving a significant hurdle for France’s lethal three-man attack of Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé. Griezmann and Dembélé had been removed, and it wasn’t clear where the inspiration would come from.
Going into the tournament, this game was not expected to be a contest. The French came into the match as one of the favourites to take home the trophy, and the Australians didn’t seem likely to mount a stern challenge to their star-studded opponents. The game was meant to be a chance to warm into the tournament with a nice win, and maybe get the forwards some goals in the process. Early on, there was no sign that France would have too many issues. Within two minutes Mbappé was in on goal, with Mathew Ryan’s solid parry the only thing standing in his way. The first ten minutes provided the keeper with plenty more opportunities to get involved, and it only seemed a matter of time before they broke through an Australian defence that was giving up territory and being cowed by the superior skills of their opponents.
The breakthrough never came. Bert van Marwijk’s defence held firm time and again, with Trent Sainsbury leading the way and midfielders Aaron Mooy and Mile Jedinak starting to assert some control in possession. Mbappé’s early chance had looked like the start of France’s dominance. By the end of the half, the French hadn’t had a better opportunity to go ahead, and the Australians had threatened their goal a couple of times as well. Mooy’s set piece delivery was as classy as ever, and the Socceroos nearly gave the French trouble after Tom Rogic’s flick-on header was desperately saved by Hugo Lloris.Embed from Getty Images
Paul Pogba runs with the ball during the game. Pogba had a hand in both of France’s goals, and looked very dangerous in the middle of the park.
In the 81st minute, the ball was at the feet of Paul Pogba. Pogba’s potential has never been in question, but a pair of inconsistent seasons with Manchester United have frustrated those who are hoping for a realisation of his immense talent. Against the Australians, Pogba seemed to have regained some of his best form. He was working well in defence and attack, and in conjunction with French midfield boss N’Golo Kanté he had helped create France’s earlier goal. Now he had a congested field ahead of him, and it was up to the talented young star to find a way through.
With France struggling to find the scoresheet, a draw was a definite possibility. Then the much-maligned video assistant referee intervened, and France were gifted the lead. It came from a quick break, with Kanté and Pogba combining to play Griezmann in behind. Josh Risdon brought him down in the box, but play was allowed to continue for minutes before the VAR control centre in Moscow directed Andrés Cunha to take another look at it. The penalty was subsequently paid despite Australian protests, allowing Griezmann to step up and blast it past Ryan. Resolute as they had been, Australia didn’t seem to have it in them to find an equaliser.
Pogba decided to pass his way through, finding the dangerous Mbappé and following up with a run through the centre of Australia’s defence. The 19-year-old attacker had no choice but to pass it back to the powerful midfielder, and Pogba soon skilfully laid it off to substitute Olivier Giroud, who was sporting an impressive bandage around his forehead even before he entered the fray. The big striker chose to give it back, and Pogba found himself on the edge of the area within striking distance.Embed from Getty Images
Australian players argue with referee Andrés Cunha after the French received a penalty minutes after the incident. The decision was the first real controversy involving the newly-introduced VAR.
As it turned out, the Australians were level a few minutes later thanks to a remarkable brain explosion from Samuel Umtiti. Mooy’s free kick was dangerous, but the French were in a good defensive position. Then Umtiti punched it, the ball connecting with an arm that was miles away from his body. Jedinak made no error with the penalty, and suddenly the Australians were back on level terms and the pressure was back on the French to equalise. It remained to be seen whether they were up to the task, even as they kept the Australians trapped in their own half and controlled the attacking play.
Pogba had a bit of a problem. The pair of one-twos he played to get into a scoring position had left him with little room to get a full-powered shot in, and he seemed too far out to score. As a result, his shot didn’t look likely to challenge Ryan. Then Aziz Behich, sweeping in from left-back to cut off the sudden attack, put his foot in there, and the result was a shot which travelled towards the goals in a parabolic arc, well above the desperate leap of the Australian keeper. The ball hit the underside of the bar, and then appeared to bounce out as Ryan safely gathered the rebound. Unfortunately for the Socceroos, looks can be deceiving, and goal-line technology told a different story. The goal counted, France had the lead, and this time they never looked like losing it.
The Australians had a little bit of time to break through but never really looked like managing it as Kanté dominated the midfield and France continued to threaten them in attack. In the end, they had to settle for a narrow loss, but such a strong and determined performance bodes well for the tournament ahead. For the French, they will be hoping that this game is nothing more than a blip on the radar, and is not indicative of a wider trend of underperformance. As well as Australia defended Les Bleus still got the three points, and that suggests that when they find their mojo they could be very dangerous.
Kazan – Kazan Arena
France 2 (Griezmann 58 pen, Pogba 80)
Australia 1 (Jedinak 62 pen)
Referee: Andrés Cunha (Uru)
France (4-3-3): Lloris – Pavard, Varane, Umtiti, Hernández; Tolisso (Matuidi 78), Kanté, Pogba; Griezmann (Giroud 70), Mbappé, Dembélé (Fekir 70).
Australia (4-2-3-1): Ryan – Risdon, Milligan, Sainsbury, Behich; Jedinak, Mooy; Leckie, Rogic (Irvine 72), Kruse (Arzani 84); Nabbout (Juric 64).
N’Golo Kanté (left) successfully dispossesses Robbie Kruse during his excellent performance in defensive midfield. Kanté’s hard work scuppered many of Australia’s attacks, and ensured France were in control of the game.
1. N’Golo Kanté (France)
Kanté put in a dominant performance in the centre of the park, winning the ball away from the Australians and keeping France in control of possession. His ball use was always reliable, and he had a big hand in the first goal thanks to a pass which played Pogba into open space. The combination between him and Pogba looked very effective, and could be very tough to stop.
2. Paul Pogba (France)
Pogba’s work through the middle of the ground was excellent, winning the ball when he needed to but also finding space and flourishing in the front third. He had a hand in both goals, playing the pass that led Risdon to bring Griezmann down in the box and finishing off the winner himself after creating a chance from nowhere. If this performance is any indication he could be in for a big World Cup.
3. Aaron Mooy (Australia)
Mooy’s hard work and control in the centre of the park had a huge impact, and his set piece delivery caused the French plenty of problems. He rarely misplaced a pass and performed his defensive duties as well as ever, and he indirectly created Australia’s goal with a dangerous free-kick which Umtiti decided to get a fist to. France’s defence had plenty of nervous moments thanks to his efforts.
4. Trent Sainsbury (Australia)
Sainsbury was solid as a rock in central defence, repelling attack after attack and making life very difficult for the three-pronged French attack. He fought hard whenever there was a ball to be won, and at one point he inadvertently punctured the ball with a particularly determined challenge. He more than held his own on the big stage.
5. Benjamin Pavard (France)
Pavard won the starting spot at right-back over a very good defender in Djibril Sidibé, and slotted into the team seamlessly. His defensive performance was excellent, and in addition to keeping the Australians at bay he looked fairly dangerous coming forward on the overlap. An ill-fated scissor kick volley from outside the box was a moment he’d rather forget, but otherwise he was in good form.