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On paper, Group C is the toughest in the World Cup, featuring three teams ranked in FIFA’s global first dozen — No. 7 France, No. 11 Peru and No. 12 Denmark — along with an Australian side that won’t lay down for anyone.
In reality, this is France’s to win, and to win big, and if Les Bleus can get the most from their incredible talent and avoid the inconsistencies that too often get in their way, they’re one of the top candidates to be parading the trophy around Luzhniki Stadium come July 15.
The Danes and Peruvians face off in one of the best opening games of the tournament, on June 16 in Saransk, with a round-of-16 slot likely on the line.
WATCH: What will it take for France to end up on top?
France can rival Germany or Brazil in terms of talent, and if everything goes its way, good luck to its rivals. But things don’t always go as they should for Les Bleus, who dropped the Euro 2016 final at home to a lesser Portugal side, dropped a game to Sweden and drew with Belarus and Luxembourg during qualifying, and have already lost one key player to injury — Arsenal center back Laurent Koscielny, with a torn Achilles — with a few others (Manchester City left-back Benjamin Mendy, most worrisome) far from certain.
Didier Deschamps, who captained France to victories at the 1998 World Cup and Euro 2000, has world-class talent at every spot, often with world-class backups, too. Getting the chemistry right is vital — remember how things fell apart eight years ago? — but staying in form is just as important. Les Bleus play with great flair and are at their mesmerizing best when their attack is quick and fluid.
They’re tight at the back, with Tottenham’s Hugo Lloris, the captain, in the nets and Real Madrid’s Raphael Varane anchoring the backline, and the attack can be devastating with Atletico Madrid’s Antoine Griezmann — the Golden Boot and Player of the Tournament winner at Euro 2016 — 19-year-old Paris Saint-Germain phenom Kylian Mbappe, and plenty of options to join them when in a 4-3-3 formation.
The engine room is manned by Chelsea’s N’Golo Kante, a superb ball winner who provides the foundation for Manchester United midfield dynamo Paul Pogba and the other attacking wizards to do their thing. Pogba has blossomed since a disappointing Euro and looks to confirm his standing among the game’s giants.
Australia is becoming a World Cup regular — this is the Socceroos’ fourth straight appearance — and they arrive as Asian champions, a title won at home three years ago. But this doesn’t seem to be among their better sides, with far fewer players involved in top-level European leagues, and the competition in this group might be beyond them.
One thing certain is the Aussies will fight until the finish, and if their measure of, say, brilliance won’t get them far, their spirit and grittiness can overcome better opponents. They tend to play foes tough — eight of 11 games over five World Cups have been draws — but have reached the round of 16 just once.
The Socceroos had the most extensive qualifying campaign, covering 22 games and about 155,000 miles in flight and ending with two home-and-home series victories, and coach Ange Postecoglou, who guided them in Brazil four years ago and to the Asian Nations Cup title, stepped down a week after because he’d had enough of the “toll.” Bert van Marwijk, who took Holland to the 2010 final and guided Saudi Arabia into this World Cup before conflicts with his bosses spurred his resignation, took charge on Jan. 24. Much of what he’ll bring remains a mystery.
There’s too much reliance on 38-year-old striker Tim Cahill, who scored 11 qualifying goals and remains the key man up top, but the influence of Hertha Berlin winger Mathew Leckie and skilled Huddersfield Town playmaker Aaron Mooy, among three players on van Marwijk’s roster who plays in one of the five elite European leagues, is growing. Aston Villa holding midfielder Mile Jedinak, in his third World Cup, captains the side.
It’s been 36 years since Peru stepped onto a World Cup field, and nobody expected Los Incas to push aside South American champion Chile for a berth, but here they are, and they could make some noise. Former Argentine star Ricardo Gareca, whose goal kept Peru out of the 1986 World Cup, has built a cohesive and joyful unit that plays a terrific short-passing game while doing the necessary defensive work, and getting to the round of 16 and beyond is within reach.
It’s a keen mix of aging stars and young talent, but the Court of Arbitration for Sport’s decision this week to extend 34-year-old Flamengo striker Paolo Guerrero’s suspension for using performance-enhancing drugs from six to 14 months, just as it was to expire, is a huge blow to Peruvian chances. FIFA in December sanctioned Guerrero for 12 months, then whittled that to six on appeal, and that was appealed by the World Anti-Doping Agency. That leaves Lokomotiv Moscow’s Jefferson Farfan, 33, as the key men up front. Veteran São Paulo playmaker Christian Cueva offers something special, and there’s a nice defensive spine — Veracruz goalkeeper Pedro Gallese, Atletico Junior defender Alberto Rodriguez, and Orlando City SC midfielder Yoshimar Yotun — backing them up.
The tournament could be a coming-out party for several youngsters, including dynamic Feyenoord midfielder Renato Tapia, Denmark-based winger Edison Flores, and two more from MLS: Portland midfielder Andy Polo and Vancouver forward Yordy Reyna.
Memories of glory years past have been stirred up by Denmark’s marvelous rise over the past couple of years, and much of the credit goes to 26-year-old playmaker Christian Eriksen, who has with Tottenham evolved into one of the world’s most capable attacking midfielders and is being compared favorably to Danish legend Michael Laudrup.
Christensen scored 11 goals during qualifying, including a hat trick to rout Ireland, 5-1, in a playoff, and he’s got a nice array of options around him that are well-suited by Norwegian manager Aage Hareide’s direct, fast-paced game out of a 4-3-3 formation. Werder Bremen’s Thomas Delaney, an energetic box-to-box midfielder, is dangerous going forward, and there are several options up top, with Feyenoord’s Nikolai Jorgensen, especially, challenging stalwart Nicklas Bendtner for playing time.
Leicester City’s Kaspar Schmeichel, the 31-year-old son of legendary goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel, is in the nets, and rising Chelsea center back Andreas Christensen, just 22, is advancing under the tutelage of captain Simon Kjaer, of Sevilla.How Denmark fares depends greatly on Eriksen, who made his World Cup debut at 18 in 2010, when the Danes failed to get out of group play. They’ve not been to a major tournament since Euro 2012, but if they can survive Group C, they could cause trouble for more fancied sides in the knockout stage.