THE SOCCEROOS face an enormous first-up task at the World Cup when they face the might of France on Saturday night (AEST).
Fox Sports football commentator Simon Hil spoke with retired striker Louis Saha, the former Premier League star capped 20 times by Les Bleus, to get a French perspective ahead of the clash.
Simon Hill: What do you think about this French squad and its potential?
Louis Saha: Yes, the potential is huge. They have proved in the last two years, post-Euros, that they have a solid base with talented players, and the coach has found the right strategy for them to perform on a good stage. This World Cup is not too soon, not too late for this generation – they have the legs, some experience.
SH: France have been placed among the favourites in Russia – is that justified?
LS: I think so, because the goalkeeper (Hugo Lloris) is one of the best in the world, the centre-back Raphael Varane is one of the best in the world, in midfield, Paul Pogba is one of the best, and then you have Antoine Griezman up front, who is one of the top three in the world.
They have confidence in attack – they have the legs, and Kylian Mbappe for me, is also a very exciting player. When you have the solidity in midfield – N’Golo Kante is an unbelievable player, Blaise Matude, you have that power too, to help you defend when you are not playing well. But also the strikers to do damage.
SH: Any surprises about the players left out – Anthony Martial for example?
LS: Yes I am surprised – but there are always topics to discuss about the selection, players who played well during the club season. Karim Benzema for example is also left out – there’s a polemic around that decision. When you are a coach like Didier Deschamps though, you have a lot of options.
SH: Qualification was not without its problems – does Didier Deschamps enjoy universal support, and does he know his best team?
LS: We are not sure that he is confident with his first eleven, or his approach – and the first game is tricky, because Australia could upset us. I have a dear friend in their squad who loves the big games – Tim Cahill – he is always a threat, so in any national team there are players that can upset you. But I think they (France) will go through.
SH: Is there a weakness in the full-back area that Australia could exploit?
LS: Right now it’s a new era – we don’t see very big defenders apart from Varane, Sergio Ramos. But it’s difficult to stop goals – when you see the top scorer in the Champions League has 15, it’s unbelievable. There are more chances so it is difficult to defend – it is good for the game though.
SH: You mentioned Tim Cahill, your friend with whom you played at Everton – are you surprised he is still there at 38?
LS: (Laughs) I think he can go for another World Cup – he is that good physically! He has special blood – when he gets a cut, it heals the next day. I don’t know what he is eating!
SH: Christophe Dugarry, who won the World Cup with France in 1998, has been a big critic of this French team, accusing them of a lack of character and mentality. Is that fair?
LS: I understand where he is coming from, because as a part of the ‘98 team, they had 10 captains – Zidane, Dugarry, Deschamps, Desailly – but the squad today is not the same era. Dugarry knows about those changes, so I find it a bit harsh. We have a different aspect of life today – social media, which I think disrupts the mentality, and the focus of players. You can see that. They are not focused on the group, it is more about the individual now. They don’t have that leadership because they don’t have to – they take care of themselves.
This generation – Pogba and Griezman for example, are social media stars, and they play with it, whether they mean it or not. So I recognise sometimes where Dugarry is coming from. They are on social media rather than talking to the press about the team. They are focused behind closed doors – but that is the difference. 20 years ago, we didn’t have the same thing.
SH: Laurent Koscielny misses out on this World Cup because of injury – how much of a blow is that for Didier Deschamps?
LS: It’s massive, because they have been working on that pairing (with Varane) for a few years now – and they have played some good games. This World Cup was a good platform for Koscielny – this was his tournament, because he has done great for Arsenal, so I was very sad when I heard the news. No one is bigger than the side though – Deschamps has a lot of players to replace him. Samuel Umtiti has done great for Barcelona, and there are others who can play with Varane.
SH: Whose World Cup is this going to be? Pogba’s? Griezman’s?
LS: Kylian Mbappe is going to be the big star. I am a big supporter of him. But it’s about the confidence – all competitions are about how the teams overcome their difficulties. It’s not when things are easy – when you are 3-0 up, and then Pogba scores the fourth. It’s about when they are one down, the pitch is wet, that’s when we see the characters, and that is what we will need to win the World Cup.
SH: France have a bit of a reputation for being slow starters – could that play into Australian hands?
LS: At the start of a World Cup there are so many factors – there is pressure, or you stop playing for your club, you only play friendlies. It can be a combination of things you can’t control. But when you are a strong side with big players, you get through it.
You may have one upset – but you go through. But what we have seen in the Euros – Portugal going all the way through to the final only winning one game – we don’t want to see that. We want to see teams scoring goals and dominating.
SH: Any other Australians who have caught your eye such as Aaron Mooy or Tom Rogic?
LS: Those players you mention are good players, but the big star – the one you can really rely on is Timmy. Not because he is my friend, but because I know him inside out, the mentality he has got – the fitness.
Believe me, the guy is unbelievable – he is a freak. You can use any vocabulary you like, he is immense, and he represents your country so well, and I am so proud to know him as a man.
Stay tuned for Simon Hill’s second edition of World Cup Insider – featuring Thomas Sorensen – ahead of Australia’s second group match vs Denmark.