Australia’s opening 2022 World Cup assignment against reigning world champions France always seemed a herculean challenge on paper but the 4-1 loss still left a sour taste.
It all started so brightly with Craig Goodwin’s ninth-minute strike but Les Bleus hit back emphatically, headlined by two six-minute bursts where they scored twice. Kylian Mbappe terrorised the Socceroos’ defence all game, while Olivier Giroud equalled Thierry Henry for France’s all-time scoring record.
Les Bleus were top quality and too good, but it felt like the Socceroos could have done more, especially on the evidence of the first 20 minutes were France appeared genuinely worried, before we dropped increasingly deeper and becoming less and less of a threat, allowing the champions to boss the game as they pleased.
All isn’t lost, especially given the Tunisia-Denmark game ended a draw. There was a sense of damage limitation about the France loss, but we’ll need to avoid defeat on Saturday against Tunisia (who were impressive against the Danish), otherwise we’re likely gone already. Ajdin Hrustic’s fitness will be important too.
The euphoria of the first 20 minutes. France came out with absolute intent, with Australia barely touching the ball except for rushed clearances in the first two minutes, but the Socceroos rallied. Craig Goodwin’s first-time goal from Mathew Leckie’s right-flank cross was a dream moment. But it was no stroke of pure fortune.
Including Leckie, Australia had four players in the box at the time of the cross. Riley McGree was about to enter the box too. It showed desire. Leckie’s run down the right flank to control a lofted pinpoint Harry Souttar pass and beat a defender, albeit in the act of injury for Lucas Hernandez, was bold.
It was a moment that fulfilled everything coach Graham Arnold had preached pre-game, about mentality and belief.
For Socceroos’ fans up in the early hours of Wednesday, we were believing and dreaming. The early wake-up call was worth it! Sadly that only lasted until the 27th minute when Adrien Rabiot equalized with an unmarked header.
— 9News Australia (@9NewsAUS) November 22, 2022
Nathaniel Atkinson was run ragged by the outstanding Kylian Mbappe. Right-back has long been a problem area for the Socceroos. Four years ago, Josh Risdon was trusted with the role. Eight years ago, it was a mix of Ivan Franjic and Ryan McGowan. This time around it was either Atkinson or Fran Karacic. Neither instill confidence.
Sadly, Les Bleus capitalized on that, utilizing Mbappe down the left time and time again. Thirty of France’s final third entries came down that left channel. It’s harsh to single out Atkinson, as Mbappe was simply sensational with his skill, control and pace, along with his pinpoint crossing finding Olivier Giroud for the fourth goal.
But the Hearts man was responsible for the second goal with a poor control in a dangerous area, followed by a lack of urgency, allowing France to swoop to set up Giroud. Arnold may have acted sooner, possibly at half-time as the SBS analysts argued post-game, to replace Atkinson although it’s unclear if Karacic or even makeshift right-backs Milos Degenek or Thomas Deng would’ve fared better. Maybe Atkinson needed more defensive cover. Not sure.
But it was plain to see the match-up was an issue all game, yet nothing was done to resolve it until Atkinson was replaced by Degenek with five minutes to go and the game well and truly over.
Scoring at a World Cup was even better than I dreamt it 🇦🇺⚽️ in the end not the result we wanted but we go into the next game with confidence! had to go with my idol Fernando Torres celebration on the same stage that he did it. pic.twitter.com/7Zu7n5DN5W
— Craig Goodwin (@craig_goodwin11) November 22, 2022
The second half. There was a complete lack of adventure, proactivity or bravery. It’s disappointing to think we didn’t muster up a shot in the second half when trailing 2-1 at half-time. It feels like we went down without a whimper.
There’s no doubt, France was the better side and the damage could have been worse, with numerous chances going begging. They are the world champions, which we shouldn’t forget.
But there were moments in that first 20 minutes where the Socceroos exposed Les Bleus’ defensive fragilities, yet it was fleeting. Arnold needed to be more proactive about re-creating that threat to put France on the back foot in the second half. The players needed to believe it was possible to get in behind and worry the French. The evidence was there early.
Given the gameplan and quality of the opposition, maybe the players got fatigued. They certainly looked tired. But you’re permitted five substitutes nowadays, so Arnold needed to be more proactive to remedy that. Up until the 73rd minute, Australia only made one change, with Mitch Duke replaced by Jason Cummings, who – despite being fresh – couldn’t apply any pressure on the French defence as no one else was doing it.
Damage limitation is one thing, but to go down without a whimper in the second half felt disappointing and unambitious, especially given the early encouragement.