PARIS — Could the curse of the FIFA World Cup titleholders be about to strike again? Five months out from the start of the Qatar event and France look shakier than ever after an unimpressive start to their latest UEFA Nations League campaign. Sure, postseason fatigue must be considered, but two points from four matches against Croatia (twice), Denmark and Austria is worrying for Didier Deschamps and his squad given their underwhelming UEFA Euro 2020 outing.
Les Bleus followed up a 2-1 home defeat to the Danes with 1-1 away draws against the Croats and the Austrians before a limp 1-0 loss at home to their 2018 prey on Monday completed a forgettable Nations League campaign which saw squad depth finally tested. Perhaps that regular rotation contributed towards consecutive inconsistent performances, but the past 12 months or so have been a struggle with key men such as Antoine Griezmann a shadow of their former selves for the two-time world champions.
To be fair, the warning signs were there since a dramatic Euro exit at the hands of Switzerland when Kylian Mbappe’s failure to convert from the penalty spot meant a round of 16 exit for the French regardless of the Nations League success which followed. Failure to beat Ukraine (twice), Hungary, Portugal, the Swiss, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Denmark, Croatia (twice) and Austria should worry Deschamps given the wide spectrum of teams covered and the fact that the Danish — one of two teams to beat them — are Group D opponents in Qatar.
Les Bleus can point to the fact that only Denmark and the Croats have beaten them over 90 minutes and that the Swiss needed penalties, but the fact remains that France are as unconvincing as they have been in a long time. This all comes while Zinedine Zidane fends off Paris Saint-Germain interest and waits for a sign that Deschamps might be about to leave his role at the helm of the team which he has worked so hard to rebuild over the past decade.
Despite flashes of brilliance, Karim Benzema has struggled to replicate his Real Madrid best since returning to the international fray while Kylian Mbappe often remains a solitary source of inspiration and has recently struggled with injury of late. Given the long and grueling nature of this past season, this summer’s Nations League arguably came at the worst possible time for such a talented group, but it is equally a squad which should be equipped to deal with fatigue or the loss of an influential figure like N’Golo Kante.
However, that has not been the case and does not entirely excuse Deschamps’ reluctance to experiment with his players until so close to the World Cup with major questions now hanging over multiple positions which previously appeared to be locked down. Austria and Denmark will be the final tests for Les Bleus before Qatar and Group D has only just been set with Australia, but Deschamps has much to ponder over the summer with little margin for error after such a barren period.
France avoiding following in the footsteps of nations like Germany, Spain and even themselves back in 2002 depends upon this current crop taking things back to basics to rediscover the sort of chemistry and unity which enabled them to win the 2018 event in Russia — a feat which feels further in the past than just four years.