And here they are. The defending World Champions, France. And they’re looking as good as they were 4 years ago, despite falling short in the European championships – the Swiss who put them out the tournament despite being 3-1 down said they were complacent: "The French thought they had won at 3-1," said Switzerland captain Granit Xhaka after the game. A world away from the final against Croatia back in 2018; where Kylian Mpabbé, became the first teenager to score in a final since Pelé. France were youthful in 2018, played without fear and had a clear identity – can they rediscover this ahead of 2022? They’re full of stars, the aforementioned Mbappe, Griezmann, Kante, Kingsley Coman, Moussa Diaby, Lucas Hernandez… the list goes on. Paul Pogba and Raphael Varane are able to perform their best for Les Bleus too although the former will have to prove fitness following knee surgery. But despite Mbappe getting the spotlight, it is a player that missed out on the World Cup that is likely to take centre stage. Ballon D'or winner Karim Benzema has been in the form of his life for Real Madrid (scoring 44 goals last year) and took his side to an unlikely Champions League triumph and a more predictable La Liga title. Arsenal’s central defender William Saliba is having an outstanding season defensively and in front of goal too – despite the competition, it would be surprising if he didn’t make the squad too.
Defending World Champions have a poor record at World Cups in recent editions; in 2018 Germany were the fifth defending World Cup champions failing to advance out of the group stage. The first nation to be eliminated in group stage was Brazil in 1966. Four of the last five World Cup champions have been cursed with the same fate: France in 2002, Italy in 2010, Spain in 2014 and Germany in 2018. Is motivation lacking? Or does it put a target on their back and encourages teams to throw everything at them? Motivation and tactics will be key if France are going to retain their title.
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
No team has won back-to-back World Cup titles since Brazil's wins in 1958 and 1962. But France have more than enough quality to defend the title and they are the logical choice to claim their third World Cup title. Denmark, also in their group, are strong and not to be underestimated (they will face each other too in the Nations League in the rehearsal) but are yet to crack that top tier level of teams, Tunisia are resilient but beatable and Australia may not put fear into French fans. So, they should comfortably make it out the group, if they finish top, perhaps one of Poland and Mexico, then potentially England in the quarters. In short, despite favouritism aligned with the South American nations (they are perhaps not the powerhouses that the Brazil 2002 side were or Argentina in 1986), France should defend their title, and perhaps comfortably. But as we have seen in 2002 and in 2010, France has the capability to capitulate.
Verdict: Group D Winners (7 points) – World Cup finalists
Manager: Didier Deschamps (France) – World Cup winner as a player and as a manager. European cup winner with France as a player, Nations League winner as a manager. He has played for Juventus, Marseille, Nantes, Bordeaux, Chelsea, Valencia; this is a man who has played and managed at the highest level. The manager remained calm following the World Cup draw: "You can’t really get carried away after a draw. We can mention Denmark and talk about what they did at the EURO, making the semi-finals, and that they're 11th in the FIFA Rankings. They are among the best European nations. We are world champions but that was four years ago.”
Key players: Well, the firepower is clear. With two world class strikers, Mbappe and Benzema should score the goals. So perhaps it is the other end we should pay our attention to: Bayern Munich’s Lucas Hernandez’s mantlepiece is currently peppered with winners’ medals for the Bundesliga (two), DFB Cup, German Supercup, World Cup, UEFA Champions League, Europa League, FIFA Club World Cup, UEFA Supercup (two) and the UEFA Nations League. As a result of World Cup heroics, Hernandez and his France teammates were awarded the Ordre national de la Légion d’honneur, or French Legion of Honour, in 2019. His brother, Theo has played for Real Madrid and now AC Milan and could line-up along him in Qatar.
Kirin Cup Winners hoping to mix substance with surprise…
Ranked 30th in the world – Tunisia is once again hoping to make deep inroads into the World Cup having fallen short last time out. The North Africans will be making their 6th appearance at the World Cup Finals having beaten Mali 1 goal to nil on aggregate to qualify. In 2018, the Eagles of Carthage were narrowly beaten by England thanks to a late Harry Kane winner, beaten comfortably by Belgium 5-2 before beating Panama. Their win against Panama was only their second World Cup Finals win since beating Mexico at the 1978 World Cup. In a bid to better previous World Cup results Tunisia participated in the 2022 Kirin Cup alongside Ghana, Japan and Chile – which they won, beating Japan 3-0 in the final. In 2021, they were finalists also in the Arab Cup but their last major triumph came back in 2011 where they were winners of the African Nations Championship.
Having long favoured attacking football, Tunisia in recent times have become a team renowned for their resolute defence. Tunisia have kept clean sheets in 22 of the 47 matches played since 2019 and conceded only 29 goals in 25 matches. Ligue 1 player Montassar Omar Talbi forms an important part of that defence and featured in their Kirin Cup win in the summer. Moreover, their rear-guard has never been breached more than twice in one game, which happened on just four occasions. Mbappe, Benzema and Eriksen will test that defence to its maximum.
So, what are their chances in the World Cup?
Tunisia can certainly compete, but can they beat their European opponents? Unless France have a 2010 style self-implosion, their chances could be slim (they are facing Brazil as a World-cup warm up which may help). Getting something from the opening Denmark game will be pivotal as well as 3 points against Australia who struggled to make the tournament. Denmark have to be off their game as they have been in excellent form and Tunisia on theirs if they are to stand a chance. Their experience playing in Qatar in the Arab Cup and scoring against Belgium and England in 2018 illustrate that they can be a threat and that must put them in good stead. Until some world class stars emerge, another group stage exit beckons though.
Verdict: Group Stage (3rd - 4 points)
Manager: Jalel Kadri (Tunisia) – Mondher Kebaier was sacked the day after the team's elimination from the Africa Cup of Nations by Burkina Faso and his assistant Kadri took the hotseat. He successfully guided Tunisia against Mali in a 2-game play-off. They must not lose against Denmark in the opening match; Kadri has been at many different clubs since 2001 but trying to get Tunisia to the second round will represent his biggest challenge yet.
"The draw for the Qatar 2022 World Cup has placed Tunisia in a difficult group but we will play with the objective of reaching the second round for the first time in our history," Kadri said following the draw in the Qatari capital.
"France is an opponent that we respect enormously. They are the title holders so it's a big challenge. There is a large population of Tunisians in France, as we know."
Key players: Both Kadri and his predecessor relied on players based in Middle Eastern leagues rather than those of Europe, however there are some exceptions including Montassar Omar Talbi (Lorient) ,Wahbi Khazri (Montpellier), Ellyes Skhiri (FC Koln) and Dylan Bronn (Salernitana). Montpellier’s Khazri is Tunisia’s second all-time goal-scorer, and he will be their talisman leading into the World Cup. Ellyes Skhiri, a player of both French and Tunisian background, plays for Cologne (and linked with Borussia Dortmund) is a talented defensive midfielder. His main assets are his running; in the 2020/21 Bundesliga season, Skhiri managed to cover over 246 miles! That's 5 more than his nearest challenger to that crown. No Bundesliga player made as many tackles as him in that season neither.
Naïm Sliti is a Tunisian professional footballer who plays as a left Midfielder for the Ettifaq FC in the Saudi Professional League and is a talented dribbler; he made the 2018 squad but didn’t make the starting lineup – perhaps 2022 will be his chance? Youssef Mskani plays in Qatar and is an experienced forward for Tunisia with 80 caps to his name and 15 goals but has never featured at a World Cup. Last time he was ruled out by a cruciate ligament injury in his right knee a few weeks into the 2018 tournament. Key players or potential key players alike, they will all have to raise their game in order to progress to the second round.