On Sunday, England bypassed an opponent that presented - prior to kickoff - a reasonable challenge with ease, crushing Senegal 3-0 during the FIFA World Cup 2022 Round of 16 game at the Al Bayt Stadium. Actually, the match had been a pretty tense affair until blown right open near the end of the first period by Jude Bellingham's dynamism, which the African champions could not live with. Everton goalkeeper Jordan Pickford had been called upon to make a great left-handed save, denying Boulaye Dia from close range as the favourites struggled to impose themselves.
Though The Three Lions would go on to win handily, it is from within those first 35 minutes that doubts about this side can be found and a case made that they may find the going against reigning World Champions France tough. That is a large chunk of a game, presenting ample time for a side better equipped than Senegal to do serious damage. After all, the AFCON title holders were shorn of their star man, Bayern Munich’s Sadio Mane and missing other experienced, key performers in Everton’s Idrissa Gueye and Cheikhou Kouyate of Nottingham Forest in midfield.
During that first third of the game, England appeared slow and lacking in ideas, even a bit ponderous in their build-up play. On several occasions they misplaced passes out from the back, with Harry Maguire the primary culprit. A side with the attacking prowess of Les Bleus would surely have punished such generosity. Southgate’s team enjoyed plenty of the ball but could not find a path through midfield, often going wide in predictable fashion. A repeat of such a poor start will surely spell disaster on Saturday.
- Date: Saturday, December 10th
- Kickoff Time: 11:00 am PT / 2:00 pm ET / 7:00 pm UTC
- Location: Al Bayt Stadium
- Match Officials: Referee: Wilton Sampaio (BRA), Assistant Referee 1: Bruno Boschilia (BRA), Assistant Referee 2: Bruno Pires (BRA)
- How To Watch: TV and streaming info via Live Soccer TV
England XI: (4-3-3) Jordan Pickford; Kyle Walker, John Stones, Harry Maguire, Luke Shaw; Jordan Henderson, Declan Rice, Jude Bellingham; Bukayo Saka, Harry Kane, Phil Foden.
It would seem perverse for the national team boss to move away from the 4-3-3 formation that has served his side so well to this point, particularly coming off what was - taken as a whole - an impressive result. Still, I have a nagging feeling that, faced with a big name opponent, that Southgate’s natural reserve will reassert itself and we may be treated to the first unveiling of the dreaded back five of the tournament. The England boss will no doubt be mightily concerned about Kylian Mbappé and could assign the pacy Walker in a man-marking assignment, which may be better achieved if he’s on the right of three central defenders.
France XI: (4-2-3-1) Hugo Lloris; Jules Koundé, Raphaël Varane, Dayo Upamecano, Theo Hernandez; Aurélien Tchouameni, Adrien Rabiot; Ousmane Dembélé, Antoine Griezmann, Kylian Mbappé, Olivier Giroud.
As for Saturday’s opposition, the French are clearly a formidable outfit, far exceeding anything England have come up against to date. Aside from Mbappé, who is probably the best player in world football currently, they boast the likes of playmaker Griezmann, who is in exceptional form at the moment, the rapid and injury-free Dembélé and evergreen veteran Giroud, scorer of three goals in Qatar and who continues to confound the doubters.
Les Bleus boast one of Europe’s top young defensive midfielders in Real Madrid’s Tchouameni alongside the reborn Rabiot, seemingly a perennial “next big thing” that is now delivering finally at age 27. In defence there is young veteran Varane forming a balanced partnership with 24-year-old Upamecano of Bayern Munich. AC Milan’s Theo Hernandez, deputising for injured older brother Lucas, provides plenty of attacking thrust from the left flank. Barcelona centre back Koundé fills in on the right side of the defence, though it is questionable whether he or Bayern’s Benjamin Pavard will line up at the weekend.
The French are missing a number of players that would derail most teams: Karim Benzema, N’Golo Kanté, Paul Pogba and Wesley Fofana, in addition to Lucas Hernandez, but can still field an enviable starting eleven with significant depth options from the bench. They handily defeated a solid Poland outfit last time out, though did not appear invulnerable, which will give England cause for encouragement. I am going to predict that Southgate will stick with a winning approach and a 4-3-3, matching up well with France’s 4-2-3-1. However, the French are a team on a high and I think this will be a step too far for England, who I feel can be got at defensively.
Prediction: England 2-3 France (AET)