PORTO ALEGRE, Brazil (AP) — The pressure is all on France to beat Honduras in their opening World Cup match on Sunday, and coach Didier Deschamps hopes his relatively inexperienced squad is mature enough to handle the expectations.
Deschamps points to Spain’s 5-1 thrashing by the Netherlands on Friday, and Brazil’s scrappy opener against Croatia the day before, as evidence that nerves can affect favorites in an opening match that often sets the tone for the ensuing games.
France should know.
Four years ago, France had a 0-0 draw with Uruguay and went out of the group stage without winning a game. Four years before, Les Bleus drew 0-0 against the Swiss and only scraped into the second round with two second-half goals against Togo in their last group game.
“Even when a great team like Spain has an enormous amount of confidence and serenity, things are never evident,” Deschamps said Saturday. “All the teams are prepared here. There might not be that much of a difference.”
Uruguay also failed to live up to its reputation as a dangerous contender. A semifinalist four years ago, Uruguay had an upset 3-1 loss to Costa Rica on Saturday.
“The difficulty of the first game also comes into it, with the different levels of preparation,” Deschamps said. “Brazil’s first match wasn’t easy against Croatia, either, and ours won’t be easy.”
Only a small group remains from France’s squad at the 2010 World Cup. Deschamps has freshened things up with some young faces but they have limited international experience and, crucially, have never been exposed to pressure of this intensity.
Injuries that ruled Franck Ribery and No. 2 goalkeeper Steve Mandanda out of the squad means only fullbacks Bacary Sagna and Patrice Evra, goalkeeper Hugo Lloris and winger Mathieu Valbuena with any experience from the 2010 World Cup. However, Valbuena’s contribution was a fleeting substitute’s appearance.
One of France’s brightest prospects is 21-year-old midfielder Paul Pogba, while 23-year-old winger Antoine Griezmann is pushing for a starting place on the left wing. The 20-year-old left back Lucas Digne has made only two international appearances, raising the question of how he copes at the highest level if Evra gets injured.
“The fact that you’re young (has) advantages, like enthusiasm and drive,” Deschamps said. But “veterans who’ve been through this before handle this kind of experience better.”
Deschamps has resisted one-on-one talks with the young players, deciding that it may unsettle rather than reassure them.
“The very fact that I’d take the step to go and speak to them might come across as me telling them they’re tense and they’re needing me to speak to them,” Deschamps said. “Everyone has their own personality, their own character. You never know how a player will react to the event.”
In 2010, France’s squad cracked in South Africa, going on strike at training and shocking a nation back home. It took several years, and a triumphant 3-0 win against Ukraine in the second leg of their playoff, to win back the trust of the fans.
Deschamps has tried to distance himself from that dark era but the questions still persist.
When he was asked, in English, during a news conference what is different about the squads of 2010 and 2014, he gave a bristly response.
“I didn’t understand everything, but I heard the words ‘South Africa’ and that’s already too much,” he said. “The most important thing is what happens tomorrow at 4 p.m.”
He rebuffed another question, too, concerning Ribery — who was ruled out due to a back injury.
Earlier this week, France’s team doctor Franck Le Gall was critical of Bayern Munich’s medical staff for the way Ribery’s injury was treated.
Ribery hit back, describing Le Gall’s criticism as unfair and saying that he didn’t trust the France team’s doctor because he wanted to give him a Cortisone injection.
Deschamps didn’t want to enter the debate.
“You think I’m going to answer this question? Yes? Well, no. We’re preparing the Honduras match,” he said. “Franck Ribery’s not here so we don’t talk about absentees. He’s free to speak. I’m more preoccupied by other things, like the match tomorrow.”
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