Australia’s World Cup opener is just over 24 hours away, with most of the talk in the lead-up to the game about who’s not going to be there (beer included) with a raft of injuries hitting both sides.
So where does that leave us? And where does that leave our first-up opponents France, who go in as heavy favourites despite Ballon d’Or winner Karim Benzema being out?
GGArmy‘s Ben Somerford discusses some of the burning questions ahead of Wednesday morning’s game, starting 6am AEST.
Do France’s injuries actually give us a chance?
News spread quickly on Sunday morning about Benzema’s quad injury, coming after the loss of Christopher Nkunku, along with Presnel Kimpembe, N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, with doubts lingering still about Raphael Varane’s fitness for Tuesday’s opener. Suddenly, Aussies were thinking, are we a chance now?
The reality is France have incredible squad depth to call upon. In fact, Didier Deschamps didn’t even bother replacing Benzema in the squad, such is his confidence in his players. Kylian Mbappe, Ousmane Dembele, Olivier Giroud and Antoine Griezmann loom as the attacking options in Benzema and Nkunku’s absences. That’s scary, even without the most recent Ballon d’Or winner.
So the quality is clearly still extremely high but, if anything, it upsets the balance and familiarity, which offers Australia hope, especially given it’s France’s first game dealing with a few changes to their preferred line-up.
France are expected to play a 4-2-3-1 formation, which is a hybrid on their 4-3-3, where Giroud could be the central point up front in Benzema’s absence. Giroud’s style is different to Benzema, with a hold-up/link-up style, while he brings a dangerous aerial goal threat where Harry Souttar will need to be on close watch. The pace and technical ability of Mbappe and Griezmann in wider roles may lend itself to Graham Arnold deploying a five-man backline, or even including a quicker defender like Thomas Deng. Smarter tactical minds will know better than me, though.
In France, the side’s injuries have created some worries about a deep run at the World Cup, but the French fans will be expecting victory over Australia, so if scores a level at half-time there may be some tension. Add that to some potentially disjointed play in a shuffled side, there’s hope that Australia can create some doubts to find an avenue to a result.
Building up to game #1 👷♂️⚽️
— Socceroos (@Socceroos) November 21, 2022
How do we replace the injured Martin Boyle?
If ever there was one position we could afford an injury, it’s probably on the flanks, with Graham Arnold having selected five wingers in the original 26-man squad, while Marco Tilio – who replaces Boyle – can play that exact role.
Of course, Boyle brings a certain quality that made him a rusted-on starter in our best XI, with his direct play, aggressive style and willingness to take on defenders. For a side likely to play mostly on the counter against Les Bleus, losing someone like that is a blow. He brings an infectious energy too.
Awer Mabil and Mathew Leckie loom as the likely starting wingers in Boyle’s absence. Both can play either wing. Leckie has experience, plus speed but his ball control and finishing can let him down. Mabil has typically been used off the bench to best effect, but is extremely fit despite his recent lack of gametime at club level with Cadiz. Both, however, cannot beat an opponent like Boyle, which is where his absence will be felt.
Craig Goodwin is an option to start, given his natural left-sidedness, along with his quality over a dead ball. Expect Garang Kuol to be brought on as a sub for 20 or 30-minute cameos on the flank to add a spark against a tiring defence.
The word from training is that Ajdin Hrustic isn’t ready to start after an ankle injury sustained last month, which is arguably a bigger issue, given he’s probably our best technical player in attack. Riley McGree likely comes into the starting XI, but it makes Tom Rogic’s self-inflicted absence more frustrating.
A huge blow for the @Socceroos tonight with star winger @MartinBoyle9 ruled out of the @FIFAWorldCup with a knee injury. See Graham Arnold's full 1 on 1 chat with @Bashola66 on our social pages on Tuesday ahead of Australia's opening group game against @equipedefrance. pic.twitter.com/sWOPz5TZtt
— SBS Sport (@SBSSportau) November 20, 2022
How can we score against Les Bleus?
Three of Australia’s last four goals at World Cups have been penalties, all taken by Mile Jedinak. Three of Australia’s last seven goals at World Cups have been scored by Tim Cahill.
Neither will be playing in Qatar this time around and this new wave of Socceroos didn’t do much scoring against top opposition in qualifying, netting only once in five games against Japan, Saudi Arabia and Peru. That lone goal was a Hrustic free-kick. He also netted a volley from a recycled corner in the playoff against UAE.
The point I’m making is set-pieces represent our main threat, as we’ll struggle to get players forward in numbers while in possession against France (maybe that’ll be different against Tunisia). Plus we’ve got 198cm-tall Harry Souttar back in our ranks, having missed 12 months, after scoring six goals in 10 games in green and gold (yep, that’s better than a goal every second game for a defender!). He’s an excellent set-piece threat.
However, that all makes Hrustic’s absence hurt more given his quality over a dead ball. Likewise Rogic and Boyle’s ability to beat an opponent one-on-one to create something when we’re outnumbered.
Mitch Duke will likely be deployed up front as a lone striker and try to hold up play and earn free-kicks up the field. He’s industrial, and not everyone’s cup of tea, but probably our best person for the job. Whether we can convert any of those half-chances will require a fair bit of luck.