Kylian Mbappe. Ousmane Dembele. Olivier Giroud. William Saliba. Adrien Rabiot. Hugo Lloris. Any team that boasts such recognizable names throughout their ranks should instantly be considered among the favorites to win the World Cup. Yet, expectations were cautiously tempered for France ahead of the tournament, as they had lost three superstars to injury.
Karim Benzema, the 2022 Ballon d’Or winner, suffered a thigh injury just days before the opening match.
N’Golo Kante, the diminutive yet indefatigable midfielder, was forced to undergo surgery for a hamstring injury after appearing in just two games this season for Chelsea.
Paul Pogba, the enigmatic yet undeniably gifted driving force of France’s 2018 World Cup success, appeared in only one preseason friendly for his new club Juventus before a knee injury ruled him out for good.
All eyes were on those absent, not those present.
France’s absurd squad depth has been a work in progress that has finally paid dividends in a moment of need. Gone are the days where France would need to bring on veterans that were no longer at the level, such as Andre Pierre Gignac and Yohan Cabaye at Euro 2016.
Manager Didier Deschamps has relied on the young Real Madrid midfield duo of Eduardo Camavinga and Aurelien Tchouameni, with their integration into the squad proving crucial to the French qualifying for the round of 16.
Juventus man Adrien Rabiot has caught many by surprise, with his excellent club form carrying over into the World Cup.
The biggest surprise, however, has been Antoine Griezmann’s renaissance on the international scene, as his creativity on the ball was instrumental in the wins against Australia and Denmark.
It’s easy to forget how highly regarded Antoine Griezmann was just a few years ago, as his recent campaigns have been marred by nagging injuries and poor statistical output.
During his first Atletico Madrid stint, he finished 3rd in Ballon D’Or voting, behind only Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi. Upon joining Barcelona in 2019 for a sum of 120 million Euros, it seemed that his career could only elevate from there. Instead, the opposite happened, and he ended up back at Atletico Madrid, where his situation hasn’t exactly improved. However, similar to his close friend and teammate Paul Pogba, he always seems to be at his best for France.
Kylian Mbappe’s meteoric rise to superstar status has allowed Griezmann to drop deeper and dictate play as a playmaker, a luxury he wasn’t afforded at Barcelona. Although he didn’t register a goal or an assist in the opening match against Australia, his quality was shown as he had two great deliveries into the box that were botched by Olivier Giroud and Mbappe, respectively.
The Denmark match was Griezmann at his best, as he sprayed passes all around the pitch and even put in quite the defensive shift, as he is averaging an impressive 2.3 tackles per game in the competition. Griezmann did squander a great chance after bringing down a ball in Denmark’s penalty area and blasting it over the bar, but he made up for it by providing France’s winner. After Andreas Christensen’s header canceled out France’s opener (a lovely interchange between Mbappe and Theo Hernandez), France needed their stars to step up and seal qualification. Picking up the ball on the edge of the box, Griezmann floated in a delightful box to the back post, where Mbappe was once again on scene to tap in and restore France’s lead to send them through to the round of 16.
In the meaningless 1-0 loss to Tunisia in the final game of Group D, even a late 73rd minute cameo from Griezmann was promising as he looked to have snatched France’s equalizer in the 98th minute, before VAR ruled it out for offside. If he can continue his brilliant partnership with Mbappe, there’s no reason France can’t defend its crown.