Today, with Group D, we continue our FIFA World Cup 2022 group-by-group analysis. The group teams are—France, Denmark, Tunisia, and Australia.
This is another classic type of World Cup group—the one where there is little mystery about who progresses, but which provides, in a single game, if one pays close enough attention, all one needs to nearly foretell an important part of the cup’s sequential progression. In France and Denmark Group D has two potential cup contenders while Australia and Tunisia are simply happy (and lucky) to be at the show.
When Les Bleus and the Red and Whites meet on November 26, the match result will tell us a lot about the tourney going forward. Both teams will have had a chance to buttress their nearly assured progression from the group with what should be comfortable opening-game wins. As they meet and barring any lineup modifications forced by injury or made for long-term strategic objectives, this should be a duel between opponents who know each other well. Denmark won their last two meetings. France will be keen to ensure their third meeting is the charm.
If a winner emerges it will likely establish the victor as one of the real cup contenders in Qatar with a potential quarterfinal match-up against England, arguably the easiest quarterfinalist opponent. Thereafter, they would likely meet Belgium, Spain, or Portugal in the semifinals, which are normally easier cup opponents than the higher-pedigree Germans, Argentines, or Brazilians. And it will only be in the finals that this group winner will encounter the next World Cup champion in their only loss of the cup.
The loser of the match will likely be paired up with a tougher opponent, a true cup contender, in what would be a game of the cup with the victor—assuming a clear and just result and not a fortuitous win—becoming an instant favorite to win it all.
A draw will indicate neither team is confident enough to risk the harm a loss would inflict on their chances to progress from the group even though they will both probably have a win in hand and a probable win upcoming. This bodes poorly for both as they will come out of their group one way or another and are yet leaving their order of progression to chance, mainly to who scores more goals against their weaker opponents. That order of progression might put the second-placed team in a likely killer match against Argentina while the first-placed team probably gets Mexico. Win, lose, or draw, the France-Denmark match result will tell us a lot about the remainder of the cup moving forward.
France comes into the 2022 World Cup under a cloud. Their soccer federation is in turmoil, the team has a number of key injuries, most notably to two irreplaceable midfielders N’Golo Kante and Paul Pogba, and star striker Kylian Mbappe has been on a rollercoaster of emotions ever since his choice to remain at PSG after having committed to Real Madrid. Add to that mess that they are full of untested talent and the mix is extremely volatile. The team could jell overnight or similarly implode before the first game. Within that context is a group of the best players in the world at every position and what, if they get their act together, may well be a true tournament favorite. But will they come together in time, or if they do, will the hubris of the many young guns get the better of them on the world stage?
Denmark is on the other side of that spectrum. They have less than a handful of world-class players, but their cohesiveness and team play are so strong and their heart-stopping talismanic leader, Christian Eriksen, is in such good form, and their performances have been so over-the-top good, particularly against much tougher competition, that one wonders what it would take to derail them. With the class they do have the team will progress out of their group and give their Round of 16 opponents a lot of trouble. If they can progress from there, the sky is the limit.
Australia had a poor qualification run, lucked out in the inter-confederation playoff penalty shootout with Peru, and come to Qatar with a weak team that is missing some key players. They are not expecting to do great things but are always able to put up a good physical fight. Unfortunately, Denmark and France so outclass them that progression is nearly impossible.
Tunisia were lucky at every step of their qualification to Qatar and simply do not have the players to mount a competitive opposition to either of UEFA’s representatives. They are fortunate in that Australia is just as poor and their match may be the high point for the victor. Do not expect Tunisia to be anything other than the punching bag of the group’s bigger boys.
France will progress from their group given their weak opposition but their entire tourney will turn on how they do against the Danes. A positive result will solidify them as a cup favorite but a poor one might relegate them to an afterthought.
Denmark, by virtue of being who they have been lately, will do well. They will progress from their group due to the little resistance expected from two of their group mates, and then, depending on their luck and who they get as their next opponents, will rise to their ranking’s potential but no more, there are enough bigger boys to contend with and in good form in this World Cup.
Australia is in for the ride and experience, and they will garner little from this three-game stint as they already know their level and little will get them higher any time soon.
Tunisia will enjoy their game against Australia but will fear the level of the results in the other two matches before departing.
English language soccer media perspectives
Here is Yahoo Sports’ take on Denmark:
“Thrilling, inspirational, and surprising all at once, the Danes surged to the Euro 2020 semis. They then roared through World Cup qualifying to suggest their run was no fluke.”
Here is ESPN’s take on Tunisia:
“…Any positives that could be taken from their [recent] narrow victory over Comoros were overshadowed by their rout at the hands of Brazil. The vibrancy of the Selecao’s performance couldn’t entirely detract from a woeful Tunisian display as the North Africans conceded four goals in 40 minutes and ultimately lost 5-1.”
Here is The Athletic’s take on France:
There have been six World Cups in the past quarter of a century and France have reached the final in half of those tournaments, winning in 1998 and 2018 and losing to Italy on penalties in 2006. One of those six ended in respectable failure, a 1-0 defeat to eventual winners Germany at the quarter-final stage in 2014. But the other two were epic disasters. France have one of the world’s best players in Mbappe and arguably the best squad in the tournament. Most bookmakers have them as favourites or narrowly second behind Brazil. But injuries and absences mean this will be a much-changed French side from the victors in a rain-soaked Moscow in 2018.
And here is The Athletic’s take on Australia:
Competing at their fifth straight World Cup after beating Peru on penalties, thanks to Andrew Redmayne’s snake hips and flailing arms. Expectations had been lowered by the start-stop qualifying campaign and while defensive vulnerabilities remain, Socceroos coach Arnold is banking on “Aussie DNA”. That means, he says: “Fight, scratch and do whatever you have got to do to win.” Yet, Australia have conceded in each of their previous 13 games in the finals — the joint-longest streak in the competition alongside Saudi Arabia.”
Contestant’s local media perspectives (in translation)
Le Monde, was critical of the French National Team in their coverage of the last meeting between France and Denmark: “Defending Nations League and World Cup champion France lost 2-0 in Denmark but avoided relegation [only] because of Austria’s defeat. It was the last match for the World Cup-bound teams before the competition starts in Qatar…[where]… the French and the Danes will meet again. Les Bleus finished third, one point ahead of the Austrians, [in Nations League play] but coach Didier Deschamps’ team won only one of their six games and scored just five goals — the least in the group.”
Tunisian media have not been overly concerned with their team’s potential progression in Qatar but have instead focused on peripheral issues such as the fact that FIFA thought the Tunisian fans were among the better supporters at the 2018 World Cup. Building on that sentiment, the news website Kapitalis commented: “Once again, the Tunisian supporters will have the mission to create the atmosphere, to enthuse, to astonish and to share these positive emotions.”
Australian media have surprisingly been focused on the Human Rights issues in Qatar rather than the soccer-related issues. In a piece of news echoed among most of their national media the Socceroos sent video and social media messages to Qatar as it appeared on abc.net.au: “Ahead of the upcoming FIFA World Cup, Socceroos players call on Qatar to improve its conditions for migrant workers and change its LGBTI laws.”
Danish media and The Guardian are all atwitter over the new Red and Whites uniform which will feature a protest against Qatar’s human rights violations. But on the team’s prospects itself, TV sports pundit Preben Elkjaer, a former Danish international, is quoted by World Soccer saying: “The thing about this tournament is that there isn’t too much difference between the top teams. Denmark are one of those sides and it means we should dream big—that we can win.”
Sundry and/or Intangible
Among the things that differentiate the four teams in this group are that Australia and Tunisia are so far behind the Danes and French that determining who will progress seems straightforward. Also, this is a great group from which to begin a Golden Boot, Golden Ball, or Ballon d’Or quest should you be a young Frenchman.
France is so good but so young they may implode before realizing their potential. If coach Didier Deschamps needs to modify his lineups because of inter-squad, federation, or individual player issues, the team could falter. But that likely will not be the case at this early stage as only one match will be competitive for Les Bleus.
Denmark’s national team are in a good place and their nearly assured progression from this group will work in their favor—giving them time to acclimatize to both Qatar and the cup. Thereafter their form and spirit will take them far but not to the final as they do not have the guns to match up against the other (France excluded) members of the top tier of football.
Tunisia’s Minister of Sport has made some comments that have irked FIFA who responded by reminding the Tunisian Football Federation that it is a FIFA rule that governments should not interfere in football federation issues and that the penalties for such interference include suspension of the nation’s federation and thus, in this case, its team’s participation in the World Cup. Stay tuned.
Australia has been riding a lucky streak that led them to Qatar. The problem is that luck allowed them to overcome third and second-tier opposition at best and only Tunisia qualifies as such in their group.
All of that said, and assuming that by game time the teams’ rosters are devoid of major absences, or those absences have been substituted for adequately, below is one potential series of scenarios of how Group D might unfold come this winter.
The Danes start their World Cup campaign with an emphatic win over a minnow and build their goal differential, which might become critical down the road.
The French keep pace with their one true rival and go them one better as Karim Benzema’s and Kylian Mbappe’s braces puts them both in the running for the Golden Boot.
The Tunisians and Australians both see this as their must-win match but ironically cannot find a way around one another.
In one of the better group games of the cup, the Danes and French trade leads in each half but cannot find a way of breaking the deadlock. Kasper Schmeichel and Hugo Lloris star and Eriksen, Kasper Dolberg, Antoine Griezmann, and Mbappe score. As the players leave the pitch, perhaps a few, and their coaches, will sense or know the significance of this outcome, but none will dwell much upon it until after the cup.
The French rest many of their starters but still manage the win. Les Bleus, via an Mbappe hat trick, score three quick first-half goals and coast to an easy win but let their guard down toward the match’s end and their former French colony get on the scoreboard.
Lost in the win is the fact that the French team is over-reliant on Mbappe’s goals, something that could haunt them down the road. Similarly, though coach Deschamps feels things are moving along swimmingly and he has rested some starters for their Round of 16 encounter there is growing uneasiness in the French camp. The coach has had to rotate players not only to keep them fresh but to give minutes to those who are complaining so much they are disrupting the locker room.
The unease is particularly felt because their stellar offense and stalwart defense have no real conduit between them in midfield since without their two central leaders those who have taken their slots seem rudderless by comparison. Despite playing well in their respective domestic competitions the likes of Eduardo Camavinga, Youssouf Fofana, and Aurelien Tchouameni have not yet had a chance to jell on the national team. France moves on to the Round of 16 with a feeling they must resolve their strategic and emotional issues soon, as at the quarterfinals level the competition could pick them apart.
Australia surprisingly open the scoring but the Danes draw even by halftime. In the second half, the Danes dominate, and a couple of well-worked goals settle the tie. But the French get the top spot in the group on goal differential, by one goal.
In the end, as expected, Les Bleus and the Red-and-Whites move on.
Order of progression to the next stage: 1. France 2. Denmark.
Photo: The missing N’Golo Kante, Shutterstock ID: 1121270147, by Marco Iacobucci Epp.