FRANCE FLAIR SAC­RI­FICED

Deschamps's prag­matic ap­proach takes them to the fi­nal

New Straits Times - - SPORT -

DE­SPITE hav­ing the most tal­ented squad at the World Cup, France have made it to to­mor­row’s fi­nal against Croa­tia by em­brac­ing prag­ma­tism over ad­ven­ture, sub­sum­ing their in­di­vid­ual flair for the col­lec­tive ben­e­fit.

The 1998 win­ners’ have not blazed their way to a third fi­nal in 20 years. In­stead, their path has been a cal­cu­lated shuf­fle, with coach Di­dier Deschamps aban­don­ing plans for a free-flow­ing side in favour of a no-frills but highly ef­fec­tive win­ning ma­chine that has kept four clean sheets in six games.

France’s only truly im­pres­sive dis­play in Rus­sia was their epic 43 win over Ar­gentina in the last 16, when they cut through Jorge Sam­paoli’s di­shev­elled side on the counter-at­tack as Kylian Mbappe used his fright­en­ing power and pace to dev­as­tat­ing ef­fect.

That thriller was fol­lowed by the solid 2-0 win over Uruguay in the quar­ter-fi­nals and a slen­der 10 vic­tory over Bel­gium in the semis. In both games they found an open­ing from a set piece and then sat back, ceded pos­ses­sion, stayed solid and looked to pick their op­po­nents off on the break.

It has not been the sweep­ing dis­play many be­lieve the team are ca­pa­ble of, but it has been good enough to take them to a sec­ond con­sec­u­tive ma­jor tour­na­ment fi­nal and Deschamps has al­tered his strat­egy to get them there.

The cap­tain of the 1998 side who was nick­named the wa­ter car­rier, Deschamps ap­peared to have am­bi­tious plans for France when he picked speedy winger Ous­mane Dem­bele in a front three in their opener against Aus­tralia and benched the pow­er­ful but un­grace­ful Olivier Giroud.

But with his plan fall­ing flat and his side draw­ing 1-1 mid­way through the sec­ond half, Deschamps re­verted to type, bring­ing on Giroud for Dem­bele and re­plac­ing Corentin Tolisso with the more ex­pe­ri­enced Blaise Ma­tu­idi.

The team in­stantly had more bal­ance and grabbed a 2-1 win with a scrappy de­flected goal.

Deschamps has largely stuck with the same side since, and the key to his strat­egy has been his abil­ity to con­vince flair play­ers like Paul Pogba to take on ex­tra de­fen­sive du­ties.

As­sisted by the tire­less N’Golo Kante, the once most ex­pen­sive player in the world has lim­ited his at­tack­ing ten­den­cies to con­struct a for­mi­da­ble shield in front of the de­fence.

Deschamps called the Manch­ester United man’s dis­play against Bel­gium in the semi-fi­nal win “mon­strous.” Pogba, mean­while, said he was happy to oblige his coach’s re­quests in or­der to win foot­ball’s big­gest prize.

“I want to win this World Cup and to do that you have to make sac­ri­fices. De­fend­ing isn’t my strong point, I’m not Kante, but I’ll hap­pily do it. I have grown up and ma­tured,” he said.

France’s de­fence con­sists of the highly ca­pa­ble cen­tre back pair­ing of Raphael Varane and Sa­muel Umtiti, key play­ers for Span­ish aris­to­crats Real Madrid and Barcelona re­spec­tively and who each broke the dead­lock in tight knock­out games.

Varane’s pow­er­ful header from a free­kick opened up an un­for­giv­ing Uruguay side, while Umtiti’s glanc­ing nod proved the dif­fer­ence against Bel­gium.

Both de­liv­er­ies came from An­toine Griez­mann, the top scorer at Euro 2016 who has en­joyed lit­tle free­dom in at­tack but who has proved just as ef­fec­tive in other ways.

The back­ground of France’s two full backs is an­other sign of the dura­bil­ity of Deschamps’ side. Both Lu­cas Her­nan­dez and Ben­jamin Pavard have plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence play­ing in cen­tral de­fence, mean­ing they do not madly com­mit them­selves for­ward.

Both have proved highly use­ful in at­tack, though: Pavard struck a sen­sa­tional equaliser against Ar­gentina, strik­ing first time a pass made by Her­nan­dez.

REUTERS PIC

(From left) France’s An­toine Griez­mann, Sa­muel Umtiti, N'Golo Kante, Raphael Varane, Olivier Giroud and Blaise Ma­tu­idi re­act in the World Cup semi-fi­nal against Bel­gium on Tues­day.

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