DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Defending champion France has not won its three World Cup group-stage matches since winning its first title in 1998.
Tunisia hasn’t even won three matches in its World Cup history, but must beat France on Wednesday to have any chance of advancing to the round of 16 in Qatar. And Tunisia’s coach Jalel Kadri is feeling the heat.
“I’m not in Jalel’s position,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “But they will go for broke.”
Kadri said before the tournament it was his “personal mission” to advance past the group stage and hinted he would quit otherwise.
The French are looking to match the ’98 team captained by Deschamps. But with Les Bleus already qualified, they only need a draw to guarantee top spot in Group D.
Deschamps has the luxury of resting key players.
“There will be changes,” he said. “Everyone’s ready to play.”
He was evasive when asked if the prolific Kylian Mbappé insisted on playing or accepts he needs a breather.
“Physically he’s fine,” Deschamps said. “Kylian doesn’t have a big ego, he’s important for us and makes the difference. But he’s always accepted what the team needs.”
One option is to move Antoine Griezmann up from his new position in right midfield into a striker’s role alongside Olivier Giroud, who needs one more goal to become France’s all-time leading scorer with 52 goals.
Deschamps hailed the unselfishness of Griezmann, a prolific forward himself with 42 goals and 26 assists for France.
“He gets as much pleasure tackling someone as setting up a goal,” Deschamps said. “He’s always been like that. For him it’s not even been a sacrifice (in midfield).”
The gulf between the sides looks vast.
The Tunisians have never been past the group stage in five World Cups and their two wins were 40 years apart: against Mexico in 1978 and Panama four years ago in Russia.
Despite good technical ability, there appears little cutting edge to this Tunisia side, despite the presence of attacking midfielders Wahbi Khazri — who scored twice at the last World Cup and has 24 international goals — and Naim Sliti.
France, however, carries multiple attacking threats.
Deschamps has always been a shrewd tactician, with deep layers of tactical knowledge gleaned from playing and coaching in Italy with Juventus.
In Qatar he’s kept things more simple with a direct approach that has surprised opponents, using the wings as his main route to goal.
It worked immediately, with the team scoring with three headers — a rarity for France — against Australia.
The pace of Mbappé on the left and Ousmane Dembélé’s searing speed down the right, with the ideal marksman in Giroud benefitting from the crosses. If Dembélé comes off, then Deschamps can turn to Kingsley Coman — who scored Bayern Munich’s winner in the 2020 Champions League final.
“Our wide players make the difference. Look at who they are!” central defender Raphael Varane said. “Going wide knocks our opponents off balance.”
The French seem very relaxed at this World Cup, which hasn’t always been the case, notably when the squad went on strike at training at the 2010 World Cup.
Midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni even started learning piano on Monday night, joining a group of wannabe musicians in the squad.
“Hopefully if we win the World Cup we can put on a concert,” he joked.
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