DOHA, Qatar (AP) — Defending champion France has not won all three of its World Cup group matches since claiming its first title in 1998.
Tunisia hasn’t even won three matches in its World Cup history, but the team needs to beat France on Wednesday to have any chance of advancing to the round of 16 in Qatar. And Tunisia coach Jalel Kadri is feeling the pressure.
“I’m not in Jalel’s position,” France coach Didier Deschamps said. “But they will go for broke.”
Kadri said before the tournament it was his “personal mission” to advance past the group stage and hinted he would quit otherwise.
“Let’s wait for the result of the match and we’ll see. Hopefully I’ll be able to answer your question after the match,” Kadri said when asked Tuesday if he’ll resign if Tunisia gets eliminated. “We are still alive and we are still present.”
The French are looking to match the 1998 team captained by Deschamps. But with Les Bleus already qualified, they only need a draw to guarantee first place in Group D so Deschamps has the luxury of resting key players.
“There will be changes,” he said. “Everyone’s ready to play.”
He was evasive when asked if the prolific Kylian Mbappé insisted on playing or accepts he needs a breather.
“Physically he’s fine,” Deschamps said. “Kylian doesn’t have a big ego. He’s important for us and makes the difference. But he’s always accepted what the team needs.”
One option is to move Antoine Griezmann up from his new position in right midfield into a striker’s role alongside Olivier Giroud, who needs one more goal to become France’s all-time leading scorer with 52.
Deschamps hailed the unselfishness of Griezmann, a prolific forward himself with 42 goals and 26 assists for France.
“He gets as much pleasure tackling someone as setting up a goal,” Deschamps said. “He’s always been like that. For him it’s not even been a sacrifice (in midfield).”
The gulf between the sides looks vast.
France has six goals in two games — three from Mbappé and two from Giroud — while Tunisia was held to a 0-0 draw with Denmark and missed some chances in a 1-0 loss to Australia.
The Tunisians have never been past the group stage in five World Cups and their two wins were 40 years apart — against Mexico in 1978 and against Panama four years ago in Russia.
“Nothing is impossible. I believe in the players,” Kadri said. “We want our fans to be proud of us.”
Despite good technical ability, the team has failed to score in Qatar despite the presence of attacking midfielders Naim Sliti and Wahbi Khazri, who had two goals at the last World Cup and has 24 for the national team.
France, however, carries multiple attacking threats.
Deschamps has always been a shrewd tactician, with deep layers of tactical knowledge gleaned from playing and coaching in Italy with Juventus. In Qatar, he’s kept things more simple with a direct approach that has surprised opponents, using the wings as his main route to goal.
It worked immediately, with the team scoring with three headers — a rarity for France — against Australia.
The pace of Mbappé on the left and Ousmane Dembélé on the right works well with the ideal marksman in Giroud benefitting from the crosses. If Dembélé comes off, then Deschamps can turn to Kingsley Coman, who scored Bayern Munich’s winner in the 2020 Champions League final.
“Our wide players make the difference. Look at who they are,” France central defender Raphael Varane said. “Going wide knocks our opponents off balance.”
The French seem very relaxed at this World Cup, which hasn’t always been the case, notably when the squad went on strike at training at the 2010 tournament.
Midfielder Aurélien Tchouaméni even started learning piano on Monday night, joining a group of wannabe musicians in the squad.
“Hopefully,” he joked, “if we win the World Cup we can put on a concert.”
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