Olivier Giroud and France pick up in Qatar where they left off in Russia

No Ballon d’Or winner, no problem. Despite Karim Benzema’s obvious talent, the Real Madrid striker’s absence may prove a blessing in disguise for France. The defending world champions cruised to a 4-1 win over a lacklustre Australia to kick off their tournament.

Australia offered far less than the side that France struggled to break down in the group stage in Russia four years ago, but the fact that Didier Deschamps’ team managed to score four goals while Kylian Mbappé was slightly off the boil shows how dangerous they will be in this tournament. True to form, it was Olivier Giroud – a player who was once mocked by Benzema as a “go kart” compared to his own Formula One car – who played the lead role in a rejigged 4-2-3-1. With a pair of well taken finishes, the Milan striker drew level with Thierry Henry as his country’s all-time leading scorer on 51 goals.

Once a doubt to even make the squad, Giroud showed why he is the ideal striker for France, at least in Deschamps’ system. He is physically imposing, eager to work hard and happy to sacrifice his individual numbers for the good of the team. If Giroud can maintain his fitness, France look a far more dangerous side with him as a lone striker – even if there are some caveats to consider.

First of all, Australia looked a shadow of the dynamic, obdurate unit that gave France and Denmark all they could handle in 2018. There are a smattering of familiar faces in Graham Arnold’s team, including the goalkeeper Mathew Ryan and Aaron Mooy, but they are far more callow than in previous tournaments. With Tim Cahill, Mark Milligan and Mile Jedinak all having moved on, this Australia team seem to be their poorest in a generation. Aside from their early goal, they looked nervy and offered little.

It also remains to be seen how strong France are at the back. Deschamps wanted to pair Raphaël Varane with Presnel Kimpembe in the centre of his defence, but the Paris Saint-Germain defender had to pull out of the squad due to injury and the Manchester United centre-back has not yet recovered to full fitness. Before the tournament, the manager said that any player who was good enough to be in his squad was good enough to play, and he put his money where his mouth was, taking a leap of faith in starting Dayot Upamecano and Ibrahima Konaté in his back four.

Upamecano has been consistently excellent for RB Leipzig and Bayern Munich since he made his France debut, but his performances for his country have left much to be desired. Even when playing alongside more experienced heads, his nervous, coltish energy has hardly inspired confidence. Injuries have been a factor but, after an uneven debut in 2020, he was rarely picked for his country before coming on for an injured Varane in the Nations League final against Spain last year – a game that France won 2-1.

Against Australia, though, he was a picture of composure, crisp in his passing and elegant in the duel. Varane will probably be first choice once fit, but Upamecano has improved his standing in the squad no end. Next to him, Konaté was less assured, looking nervous in possession at times. Deschamps may go with Jules Koundé or William Saliba against Denmark on Saturday but, even if the Liverpool man and Hugo Lloris both looked a step off their best, it’s unlikely to be much of a challenge if the attackers remain as sharp as they were against Australia.

France scored four goals but it could have been more, with Mbappé and Aurélien Tchouaméni both missing presentable chances. The late loss of Benzema forced Deschamps to abandon a 4-3-1-2, in which Antoine Griezmann would have played behind the Real Madrid striker and Mbappé. Instead, the manager deployed a far more attacking lineup, with Tchouaméni anchoring the midfield and Adrien Rabiot playing a box-to-box role to his left.

If Upamecano did the most to raise his standing as a key player, Rabiot was not far behind. The Juventus player – the most experienced of a talented but largely untested group of midfielders – refused to be included in Deschamps’ standby squad for Russia four years ago but, after two years in the wilderness, he has slowly worked himself back into his manager’s good graces and he was superb against Australia.

His goal was well taken but his assist was even more impressive. The way he pressurised the Australia defence created a loose ball and, after a clever exchange with Mbappé, he set up Giroud to score. His tireless running only added to a leather-lunged display that evoked Blaise Matuidi’s role in a similar position in 2018. His task was, again, made easier by the quality of the opposition, and the injury to Lucas Hernandez, which saw his brother Théo come on to provide more attacking thrust, but Rabiot rose to the occasion in a way he has not shown in any of his previous 28 caps.

Olivier Giroud
He also, and perhaps most importantly in a side where only Giroud and Griezmann are older than 26, offered plenty of maturity, especially given the one-two blow of losing Lucas Hérnandez and conceding early doors. “There wasn’t a thought of panicking,” said Rabiot after the match. While there may be a bit of bravura in that statement, it proved to be the case – which was particularly impressive given the weight of expectations on Les Bleus.

Further forward Griezmann, as always the ideal combination of imagination and graft, linked the play well with midfield, as he and Giroud frequently dropped to receive the ball, allowing Mbappé and Ousmane Dembélé to cut inside. Dembélé was enigmatic. His assist for Mbappé’s goal was impressive but he squandered possession frequently; his greatest asset – his unpredictability – was also his undoing at times.

What, then of Mbappé? With Benzema sidelined, the pressure on him was ratcheted up a notch. He went into the World Cup after a run of sparkling form for his country, scoring 12 goals in 11 matches even while France’s results had been uneven. He skied a shot over the crossbar early on and struggled to keep possession, but then, as if to offer an insouciant reminder of his ability, he produced a sublime backheel to Rabiot to help set up Giroud’s first goal.

His influence grew steadily in the second half and, by the time he set up Giroud to score France’s fourth and final goal, he looked back to his effervescent best. Easily toggling between creator and scorer, and ably supported by Théo Hernandez, Mbappé looked more eager and driven as the match wore on, seemingly coming to grips with the tactical nuances of France’s approach.

One would never associate Mbappé with the idea of a slow burn but, while he and his teammates readjust to life without Benzema, the best is definitely yet to come. This is a hungrier, more thrilling France team and they look a dangerous prospect indeed.