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France meet familiar foes to start World Cup defence

France are hoping to heed a warning from history as they kick off their defence of the World Cup trophy in a group which bears a remarkable resemblance to the section in which they started their road to glory four years ago in Russia.

Like in 2018, Les Bleus begin their World Cup campaign against Australia and they will also take on Denmark in Group D.

The only difference in Qatar is that Tunisia complete the section instead of Peru, who lost an intercontinental qualifying play-off on penalties to the Socceroos.

France come into this World Cup billed as one of the leading contenders to go all the way, but past experience should teach them to be wary.

After all, no nation has successfully defended the trophy since Brazil in 1962, and the last time the French went to the tournament as defending champions, they swiftly returned home with their tails between their legs.

Having won the World Cup on home soil in 1998, four years later they went to South Korea as defending European champions and clear favourites to claim another title.

Hampered by an injury to Zinedine Zidane, they were stunned by Senegal in their opening game and were eliminated in the group stage without even scoring a goal.

A repeat of such a scenario seems improbable for the side coached by Didier Deschamps, who have an attack led by the brilliant Kylian Mbappe and Karim Benzema, the latter fresh from winning the Ballon d’Or.

Throw in Antoine Griezmann, Christopher Nkunku and Ousmane Dembele, and scoring goals should be no issue for Les Bleus, but they have problems elsewhere.

Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, their first-choice midfielders in 2018, are out injured, and several others have been struggling for fitness.

“During our last get-together we were faced with an injury crisis, but there are no doubts in our minds, we know how difficult the World Cup is for everybody,” coach Deschamps told AFP last month.

“France are still a competitive side, but we know we’ll have a lot to do,” to retain the trophy, he added.

Dangerous Danes

Denmark, who overcame the traumatic collapse of Christian Eriksen to reach the semi-finals of Euro 2020, have the appearance of dangerous outsiders.

They cruised through qualifying with nine wins, and 30 goals scored, in 10 games and defeated France home and away in their recent UEFA Nations League campaign.

“There is a great work ethic and a desire to improve as a collective. We can be really good if we continue to make sacrifices for each other,” said coach Kasper Hjulmand, who now has Manchester United midfielder Eriksen back in his squad.

France and Denmark meet in their second game and that could be crucial in determining who tops the section, with the danger being that Argentina could lie in wait in the last 16.

Australia have not made it out of their group since the 2006 World Cup and failed to win a game at either of the last two tournaments.

Graham Arnold’s side only qualified for Qatar by the skin of their teeth and just winning a game this time would have to rank as a major achievement for a side short on players plying their trade in major European leagues.

Meanwhile Tunisia are dreaming of getting out of their group at a World Cup for the first time at what will be their sixth attempt.

The Carthage Eagles came within seconds of holding England to a draw in 2018 and can draw encouragement from that performance coming into this campaign.

Jalel Kadri’s team will be targeting a victory against the Socceroos in their second game to give themselves a chance of making history and reaching the knockout phase.

They will look to the Corsican-born Wahbi Khazri for attacking inspiration.

“We know we are certainly not among the favourites, but anything is possible in a major competition and we will try to spring a surprise,” said their Cologne midfielder Ellyes Skhiri, another of the French-born members of their squad.

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