Goalkeepers: Hugo Lloris (Tottenham), Stéphane Ruffier (Monaco), Mickaël Landreau (Bastia);
Defenders: Mathieu Debuchy (Newcastle United), Lucas Digne (PSG) Patrice Evra (Manchester United), Laurent Koscielny (Arsenal), Eliaquim Mangala (Porto), Bacary Sagna (Arsenal), Mamadou Sakho (Liverpool), Raphaël Varane (Real Madrid);
Midfielders: Yohan Cabaye (PSG), Clément Grenier (Lyon), Blaise Matuidi (PSG), Rio Mavuba (Lille), Paul Pogba (Juventus), Moussa Sissoko (Newcastle), Mathieu Valbuena (Marseille);
Forwards: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Olivier Giroud (Arsenal), Antoine Griezmann (Real Sociedad), Loïc Rémy (Newcastle), Franck Ribéry (Bayern Munich).
France go into the World Cup with growing expectations and renewed optimism, even though their recent record in the final stages of FIFA competitions is not totally encouraging. Three out of their last five tournaments (World Cup: 2002, 2010 / European Championships: 2008) have ended with elimination in the group stages, although they did make it to the Quarter Finals in Ukraine/Poland in the last European Championships, and were beaten finalists in Germany following Zinedine Zidane’s infamous head-butt on Marco Materazzi, which effectively cost them the final against Italy.
The French scraped into the finals with a nervy play-off victory against Ukraine, having lost the first leg 0-2, but have showed impressive form in the last two friendlies, with morale-boosting victories over the Netherlands (2-0) and Norway (4-0) at the Stade de France, which have revived belief in “Les Bleus” under Didier Deschamps. France will have to get used to friendlies once the World Cup is over, as they are already qualified as hosts for the next European Championships in 2016.
The nation had developed an apathy towards its football team following the failure of “Les Bleus” to make a telling impression at the last two major tournaments – their exit being embroiled in a public relations nightmare after player actions, whether it was the infamous player revolt at Knysna, or the controversy surrounding the acts of Samir Nasri after his goal against England, and team-mate Yann M’Vila, who stormed off the field without shaking the hand of his replacement in the last European Championships. France came within an ace of failing to qualify for Brazil, and the knives in the French media were primed ready for yet another cull after their Play-Off 1st leg defeat in Ukraine, not least for the national coach Didier Deschamps, who has pedigree being the a member of the victorious 1998 World Cup team on home soil – their only success to date – but the fickle press changed their tune with back-to-back wins at the Stade de France, and expectations are increasing once more.
If anything, it was the introduction of hungry youngsters into the fold which ignited the public imagination once more. Two youngsters who are destined for great things are Raphael Varane, freshly crowned Champions League winner with Real Madrid, and Antoine Griezmann, who has enjoyed rave reviews at Real Sociedad, having been there since the beginning of his teens, helping them to qualify for the Champions League over much richer and illustrious clubs. Whilst Varane may well figure in Deschamps’ first starting line-up, Griezmann will probably have to wait his turn behind Franck Ribery, who is still likely to be given a starting berth, despite suffering from injury problems and a dip in form since Bayern Munich romped to the Bundesliga title with weeks to spare – not to mention the added distraction of a damaging court-case where he and team-mate Karim Benzema were eventually cleared of knowingly having under-age sex with an escort.
Benzema, who broke his lengthy national team goal drought in the qualifiers, has been in decent form for Real Madrid, netting 17 times this season, and picking up a Champions League medal will be the ideal boost ahead of Brazil. He faces competition from Arsenal striker Olivier Giroud, who celebrated his FA Cup winners’ medal by scoring two excellent goals in their friendly demolition of Norway in their Paris send-off this week to stake a valid claim, although you would still expect Deschamps to opt for the experience of the former Lyon hitman, in spite of having started nigh on 60 games for the Spanish side this season, when it comes to the opening group match. Newcastle loan-star Loic Remy has had a frustrating season. After shooting the Geordies to a presentable start in the Premier League, he saw his season curtailed somewhat by injuries. He did, however, signal his intent with a nicely taken goal against Norway, and gives Deschamps a pacy alternative option if required – on the wing or up front.
At the other end of the pitch, France will undoubtedly turn to Hugo Lloris, the Tottenham keeper, who has enjoyed an impressive second season in the Premier League. His main competition was Marseille shot stopper Steve Mandanda, but Mandanda suffered an injury in the last match of the season, which deprived him of a place on the plane. Stéphane Ruffier of Monaco stepped up to fill the number 2 position behind Lloris, leaving veteran experienced goalkeeper Mickaël Landreau to fulfil the role of cheerleader for his swansong, having announced his retirement from the game after the competition.
In defence, Varane is a good bet to start alongside Liverpool’s Mamadou Sakho, who skippered the national side for the first time this week. Sakho will relinquish the captain’s armband to senior compatriots Ribery or Lloris in the tournament. Deschamps will have the option of Arsenal centre-back Laurent Koscielny, who has established himself in the English top flight after his move from Lorient. The full-back berths should be occupied by the experienced Patrice Evra and Bacary Sagna, although another member of Newcastle’s French Foreign Legion, Mathieu Débuchy is a ready-made back-up and would not look out of place, as he provides attacking options to the side in support of the midfield. It would not be a huge surprise if he started the opening game.
In the middle, Deschamps opted to leave out controversial character Samir Nasri, in spite of the former Marseille midfielder playing a key role in Manchester City’s successful Premier League title challenge. Although an influential player with big-game experience, the fear of another public relations mess was probably a motivating factor, and Nasri's partner duly obliged with an expletive-laced reaction via Twitter to his omission by Deschamps and the French Football Association. His role is most likely to be fulfilled by Mathieu Valbuena, who has been impressive at international level. In addition to three assists against Norway, he is also credited with assists on almost half of all French international goals in the past year. The Marseille midfielder is a player who will pose problems to opponents in the final third, and will either figure out wide, or in a free role behind the striker. He may well be joined in midfield by Yohan Cabaye, who seemed to be talismanic at Newcastle, given their slump in form after his departure to French champions Paris Saint-Germain in the January transfer window, and Cabaye’s PSG team-mate Blaise Matuidi, who is an all-action defensive midfielder and a key part in the French team’s backbone.
Paul Pogba didn’t make the cut at Old Trafford under Alex Ferguson, making only seven substitute appearances in two seasons – and was at the centre of a “tapping-up” storm after his first pro-club Le Havre protested that Manchester United had allegedly made payments to his parents to incentivise them to send him to England - but he has been a revelation since Juventus thrusted this young rising star into the limelight. The Italian side finished runaway champions this season, amassing over 100 points, and Pogba was instrumental in their domestic success, credited with seven assists, and weighing in with as many goals for good measure from midfield. The 21-year-old is currently hot property, in spite of insisting that he’s happy at Juventus. A successful World Cup campaign for this midfielder, who has made just six appearances for his country, will doubtlessly see his market value rocket further. Paris, Real Madrid are just two of the big name clubs linked with the midfielder. Antoine Griezmann is also a player that can make a spectacular contribution - if given the chance.
France is a team with momentum at the moment, following three straight wins (albeit all at the Stade de France). Their friendly against Paraguay on Sunday in Nice will give a good indication of their real form, against useful South American opponents. Another victory, and France should have more than enough in their locker to coast through the group stage. At that point, they enter into the lottery of the knock-out stages. I predict a quarter final appearance for Didier Deschamps’ men, although they may have to overcome Argentina or Nigeria to get there. Germany, Portugal and even outsiders Ghana (who are arguably in the “group of death”) will provide stiff opposition and could block progress to the semi-finals.