The France coach Didier Deschamps has insisted Raphael Varane, Presnel Kimpembe and Karim Benzema will be fit enough to start the World Cup after recent injuries as Les Bleus embark upon the defence of their trophy with a provisional squad of 25 players.
The national coach, who announced his choices on TF1’s eight o’clock news bulletin on Wednesday night before conducting a fractious press conference to explain his decisions, intends to change his tactical approach in Qatar and will revert to a back four, ditching a recent experiment with a three-man rearguard.
He would instinctively have preferred to pick a party of 23, but will take a larger group to Qatar with injury issues surrounding so many of his players. Deschamps has previously insisted all players who travel to a major tournament should be playing for their clubs in the build-up to the tournament though, in Varane’s case in particular, he has made an exception.
That reflects the centre-half’s status within the national set-up.
The 29-year-old has not been involved since sustaining a hamstring injury with Manchester United at Chelsea on October 22. While he will not feature for his club before joining up with the national squad, there is optimism Varane will be able to train with his international team-mates next week.
Benzema has played only 27 minutes for Real Madrid since mid-October after an ankle problem. There are concerns around the fitness of Kimpembe, who has started one game for Paris Saint-Germain since September 10 and continues to be troubled by an Achilles complaint. Kimpembe hopes to train at PSG on Thursday and has targeted game-time in Sunday’s Ligue 1 fixture against Auxerre.
The AC Milan goalkeeper Mike Maignan has failed to recover from a calf problem — Rennes’ Steve Mandanda, at 37, and Alphonse Areoloa of West Ham United will serve as back-ups to Hugo Lloris — while the decision not to select Jonathan Clauss of Marseille and Aston Villa’s Lucas Digne reflects Deschamps’ decision to revert from his recent 3-4-1-2 formation to the 4-2-3-1 that was successful in 2018.
“It will be four at the back,” said Deschamps. “We did a lot of analysis (of recent games), and I had a lot of discussions with my staff and my players. The feelings expressed influenced my decision. We did some very good things in this system (with three at the back), but we were in difficulty on occasion. We were often imbalanced even if we turned around some bad situations. To win a competition, you have to be solid defensively.
“We will have to defend well, defend better, not at the expense of our attacking intent, but if I choose this formation I feel we can do both. The system leads to make different choices of players. There are nine defenders in the squad — one more than usual.”
Asked about Konate’s inclusion, he added: “You don’t start at his age in a Liverpool team who have recently been European champions by accident.”
Deschamps, who appeared agitated in his press conference, admitted that selecting this squad had been “far from easy” with injury having denied him Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, whose midfield partnership was so instrumental in securing the trophy in Russia four years ago.
Much emphasis will be placed on the Real Madrid midfielder Aurelien Tchouameni, who has established himself as a regular in the absence of the more experienced duo. His teenage club-mate, Eduardo Camavinga, has made the cut despite winning only one cap in the last two years.
“What counts against Eduardo is a lack of playing time, but he is at Real Madrid,” said Deschamps. “He only has internationals in front of him. And something always happens when he is on the field. He doesn’t do everything well, he prefers some positions to others, but it’s an advantage to have his versatility. Add to that a great state of mind, he has an infectious smile and he’s a great listener.”
There is a call-up for Marseille’s Jordan Veretout, who has not played a minute for the national team in 2022, and his club-mate Matteo Guendouzi, as well as the highly promising Monaco midfielder Youssouf Fofana. He forged a fine partnership with Tchouameni in the Principality last season before the latter’s summer switch to Madrid.
“I have confidence in these players,” said Deschamps. “You know what the two absent players (Pogba and Kante) represent in terms of experience and leadership. Fortunately, in the various get-togethers, these new players have had game-time. It’s not going to give them the experience of Paul and NG, but I still have confidence in them.”
The French challenge will be spearheaded by PSG’s Kylian Mbappe and Benzema. The veteran Milan forward Olivier Giroud, who is two goals shy of Thierry Henry’s national record tally of 51, has been picked for his third World Cup.
The players will report to the national training base at Clairefontaine, on the outskirts of Paris, at noon next Monday to begin their preparation. The French delegation are due to fly to Doha on Wednesday morning, six days before their first group game, where they will be based at the Al-Messila complex on the outskirts of the capital. They will train for the first time on the Al-Sadd pitch, a 15-minute drive from the team hotel, on Thursday.
National teams have to submit their finalised lists to FIFA on Monday evening (November 14), but there is still scope to make alterations up to 24 hours before a side’s first match of the tournament if players succumb to injury. That means France have until November 21, 24 hours before their opening fixture against Australia, to make further changes.
Defenders: Lucas Hernandez (Bayern Munich), Theo Hernandez (AC Milan), Presnel Kimpembe (PSG), Ibrahima Konate (Liverpool), Jules Kounde (Barcelona), Benjamin Pavard (Bayern Munich), William Saliba (Arsenal), Dayot Upamecano (Bayern Munich), Raphael Varane (Manchester United).
Midfielders: Eduardo Camavinga (Real Madrid), Youssouf Fofana (Monaco), Matteo Guendouzi (Marseille), Adrien Rabiot (Juventus), Aurelien Tchouameni (Real Madrid), Jordan Veretout (Marseille).
Forwards: Karim Benzema (Real Madrid), Kingsley Coman (Bayern Munich), Olivier Giroud (AC Milan), Ousmane Dembele (Barcelona), Kylian Mbappe (Paris Saint-Germain), Antoine Griezmann (Atletico Madrid), Christopher Nkunku (RB Leipzig).
(Photo: Lars Baron – FIFA/FIFA via Getty Images)