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France: The most talented squad in the tournament

France enter the 2018 World Cup as a nation with plenty of hope. Les Bleus’ last outing at an international tournament saw them fall at the final hurdle, losing 1-0 to that famous Eder goal at Euro 2016 in Paris.

A crushing blow, but Didier Deschamps’ side showed throughout that summer they were capable of competing and beating the very best. The 2-0 win over bitter rivals Germany will be cherished for some time.

Two years on and there is genuine belief that France’s star-studded squad can lift the Jules Rimet trophy on Russian soil.

France’s World Cup squad

Goalkeepers: Areola, Lloris, Mandanda

Defenders: Lucas Hernandez, Kimpembe, Pavard, Mendy, Sidibe, Rami, Umtiti, Varane

Midfielders: Matuidi, Kante, N’Zonzi, Pogba, Tolisso

Forwards: Giroud, Griezmann, Mbappe, Lemar, Fekir, Thauvin, Dembele

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How did they qualify?

Unlike several other top European nations, France found themselves in one of the toughest qualification groups. Both Sweden and Netherlands - two countries littered with impressive players - joined Les Bleus in Group A.

Belarus, Bulgaria and Luxembourg were the three ‘minnows’ but France would stumble on two occasions in the six games against the trio.

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Their opening fixture at home to Belarus back in September 2016 saw them held to a 0-0 draw, however, Les Bleus would bounce back to win their next four games, putting them in pole position to qualify at the half-way stage.

But their sixth game saw them lose their first in qualifying, with Sweden winning 2-1. They would go on to win their next fixture 4-0 against an underperforming Dutch side, but their eighth game produced perhaps the biggest shock of qualifying, as Luxembourg held them to a 0-0 draw in Paris.

Back-to-back wins away in Belarus and at home to Bulgaria saw them progress as group winners with 23 points, four ahead of Sweden.

Key men

As most will know, French football development has boomed in recent years. Talent has appeared left, right and centre, meaning Deschamps has plenty of options in his star-studded squad.

The poster boy of the French side will still be Antoine Griezmann, the man who lit up Euro 2016 with six goals, including two in the semi-final victory over Germany.

Paul Pogba and N’Golo Kante’s partnership in midfield will be crucial, while the mercurial duo of Kylian Mbappe and Ousmane Dembele provide fresh attacking options.

At the back, Samuel Umtiti and Raphael Varane represent two of the finest centre-backs in world football, a formidable wall that should offer adequate protection to Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris.

A lot of onus will be on Pogba to finally deliver after a poor Euro 2016 and if he lets the World Cup pass him by, his place in this France side will be questioned.

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One to watch - Florian Thauvin

Premier League fans will remember Florian Thauvin from his disastrous stint with Newcastle.

Tyneside certainly wasn’t the place for him, but back in his homeland with Marseille, Thauvin has developed enormously and will arrive in Russia as one of the most in-form wingers in world football.

Dembele and Mbappe may be viewed as France’s finest wide options, but Thauvin has been the most productive, outscoring the latter despite his brilliant debut season with PSG.

AFP's French football expert Tom Williams told GiveMeSport: “Thauvin wasn't taken all that seriously in France for a while. There was that business of his aborted transfer to Lille in 2013 and when he went to Newcastle and flopped, I think people probably wondered whether he'd ever fulfil his potential.

“But he's been brilliant for Marseille in the last two seasons and has scored more Ligue 1 goals than any player except Cavani and Falcao during that time.

"I don't see him starting for France in Russia, but he'll be a useful option off the bench. France have loads of great attacking players, but there's nobody else who can drive infield from the right onto his left foot like Thauvin.”

France may have one of the World Cup’s most dangerous super subs.

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The manager

Didier Deschamps was one of the cornerstones of France’s 1998 World Cup-winning team. He jumped into the hot-seat after the unpopular Laurent Blanc finally stepped down following France’s exit from Euro 2012 at the hands of eventual winners Spain.

He’s noticeably improved this France side in the last two major international tournaments, with clear progression being made ever since they scraped through the World Cup play-off vs Ukraine in 2014.

Les Bleus put on a great show at Euro 2016 and should have won it but were defeated by an uninspiring Portugal side.

However, little blame was placed at Deschamps’ door for that loss and the team he has built certainly means France fans can start their World Cup campaign with plenty of optimism.

Nevertheless, BT Sport's French football expert Julien Laurens still has some doubts over Deschamps.

“He has some amazing talents at his disposal and yet we don’t see a pattern of play, we don’t see a collective strength with or without the ball," Laurens told GiveMeSport.

"So let’s see what he will do during the World Cup. He is still under contract so whatever happens in Russia, he will still be in charge after that.”

World Cup 2018: The top 10 contenders

Potential route to the final

Group B certainly isn’t the strongest at the tournament, with Denmark, Australia and Peru selected with Les Bleus.

The Danes and Christian Eriksen will provide the most difficult test, but qualification should not be too much of a push.

In the second round the French will be treated to a date with a team from Group D, which contains Argentina, Iceland, Croatia and Nigeria - a much tougher quartet.

Should they progress from a tricky last-16 match, they face the daunting prospect of two teams which have inflicted pain on them in recent tournaments; Portugal and Spain.

In the final two rounds of matches, their likely opponents would be either Germany or Brazil. It certainly won’t be easy.

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Expert opinion

Tom Williams, French football expert for AFP

“I think France have got an incredibly deep talent pool, but Deschamps hasn't quite found the right formula yet, as we saw in their two friendly games against Colombia and Russia.

"If he can find a system that works, as he did at Euro 2016, I can see France reaching at least the semi-finals, but I'd put Spain, Germany and probably Brazil above them for the time being.”

Julien Laurens, French football expert for BT Sport

“I think they do have a chance to win it. Spain, Germany and Brazil are the biggest favourites but France are just behind them.

"In terms of talent and depth, this is the best squad France have had since 1998 when they won the World Cup. They have some young and very talented players mixed with some more experienced and mature players.

"Their group will enable them to go from strength to strength in the competition and be at their peak in the knock out stages. After that, they will need a bit of luck, they will need their star players to be at their best and deliver and they will need Deschamps to get his tactics right too.”

ODDS

The French are a trendy pick this summer (11/2)*, with Deschamps capable of fielding two highly competitive XIs such is the strength in depth of his squad.

They have a relatively straightforward group to negotiate and in Griezmann (9/1)* they possess one of the favourites for the Golden Boot.

He bagged six goals on home soil two summers ago and only Neymar and Lionel Messi boast better odds to top the scoring chart in Russia.

*Please note these odds are correct at time of publishing and could be subject to change.

**GiveMeSport brings you this article in collaboration with William Hill

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