ADRIEN Rabiot seemed pretty tense. Lucas Hernandez was completely the opposite.
It’s difficult to judge the mood in the France camp, missing several key players to injury and some still recovering, as they gear up to defend the crown they won four years ago in Russia at the World Cup in Qatar but what’s obvious is that Les Bleus aren’t expecting things getting any easier.
With the fitness of Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema and defender Rafael Varane still in doubt, Didier Deschamps’ holders kick off their campaign in Group ‘D’ against Australia on Nov. 22 before facing Denmark and Tunisia. And Hernandez feels opponents are baying for blood. “All the teams want to beat France… they will be aggressive and it’s going to be a real fight,” said defender Hernandez, who arrived for a press conference at France’s training facility at the Al Sadd Sports Club on Friday with a wide grin.
There was no expression of that sort on Rabiot. Perhaps it has to do with this being his first World Cup while Hernandez was part of the side that tasted glory in Russia. It perhaps also has to do with the shoes the Juventus midfielder has to fill.
Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante, two vital cogs of France’s midfield in their triumph in 2018, were ruled out of the event due to injury.
Blaise Matuidi, whose effervescent running was vital for France’s efficient counter-punching style, has fallen out of international reckoning.
“It’s my first World Cup so there is a certain amount of pressure but it’s not overbearing,” Rabiot told reporters. “It was a big disappointment not to get selected at the World Cup in Russia but I’m grateful to be here and consider myself lucky that my time has come.”
The role for Rabiot is likely to be the one played by Matuidi, of a free-ranging box-to-box midfielder supplementing the defence and complementing the attack. Rabiot, though, is only looking to play.
“A role in the starting XI carries great responsibility,” he said. “I’m a footballer and a competitor. I’m capable of playing at different positions. The most important thing is to play. Of course I prefer to play at the position I’m best at, where I can show my compatibility and show what I can bring to the team.
“Blaise had different qualities, and I’m not the same kind of player. But if I’m asked to play that position, I can do that. If that’s the best thing for the team, if coach has decided.”
Rabiot arrived into the World Cup after a goal-scoring run with Juve and he’s hoping to build on that with solid performances with France. That, he hopes, will also help shed his ‘bad boy’ image in France.
“It will change if the competition goes well,” said the 27-year-old, who has had a series of bust-ups with team-mates and coaches during his career. “I show myself on the pitch and I’m focussed on football as well as how far we can go.”
In Qatar, France are looking to avoid the fate of the last three defending champions at the World Cup with Italy, Spain and Germany all having failed to progress past the group stage.
In 2002 — when the World Cup was last held in Asia, the same fate befell France who lifted their maiden world crown on home soil in 1998. Then too, they faced the Danes in the group stage.
“It’s a lot of responsibility,” Rabiot said of the curse on World Cup champions from Europe. “A big challenge and it’s great to be able to defend the title. Going to the final won’t be an easy task. But we have the opportunity to do something special.
“We have to stay united and not get into things that are being said outside. We’re looking to evolve in a serene fashion.”
Evolution will be important for France in Qatar. Holders which have failed to do that have fallen short. But France will also have to evolve with the uncertainty regarding the condition of star striker Benzema and centre-back Varane, both of whom have been training separately from the rest of the squad.
“We’re working on injuries and I’m hopeful they will be able to play,” said Rabiot. “We’re not affected by it. Of course it’s less of a problem [up front] if Karim is playing. I think Karim will play when he feels ready. Whether he’s ready, it’s a decision for the coach.”
Varane’s fitness, meanwhile, will have a direct impact on which position Hernandez — who starred at left-back in Russia — will play. The versatile 26-year-old has played both in the centre and at the wing for Bayern Munich and said he won’t have problems in slotting in any position to help France’s cause.
“I’ve been playing a lot in the centre [since the World Cup] but in the last three games with Bayern, I was playing at left back,” noted Hernandez. “Varane is a very important player for us but we trust the staff to manage both him and Benzema. We hope they will be able to play.”
Hernandez however is confident that his side will be able to cope if the duo were unavailable for their World Cup opener.
“We are a great team with players who all start for their clubs,” he said. “We’re confident about the qualities we have. We have a lot of young players who bring something new. They can bring more things to our team. Everyone is motivated. Everyone wants to win.”
Winning in Qatar, however, is going to be a challenge. Unlike in 2018 when teams had a month to prepare, the timing of the World Cup in Qatar has seen the players get together for only a week.
“It’s been just four days since we’ve all got together,” said Hernandez.
“This time we won’t get a lot of time to live off the pitch. Last time, we were a team that worked well and I hope we can do the same. We know what the World Cup represents.”
France’s injury woes have taken the spotlight off the lethal weapon they still possess. Kylian Mbappe, who sparkled in Russia as a teenager, is now 23. The PSG star forward is only getting better and better and Hernandez hopes Mbappe will once again shine at football’s biggest stage.
“He’s matured on and off the pitch and it’s an honour to have him,” he said. “We need to try and get him in the best positions so that he can make a difference.”
In Russia, the French team worked like clockwork; a seamless combination of components. Four years on, it seems Deschamps, who captained France to glory in 1998, has a job on his hands to reinvent the current side and make them just as potent.
Published in Dawn, November 19th, 2022