Saturday night should be far from feverish for the thousands of France fans wending their way to the Parc des Princes in the leafy western fringes of Paris. Winless Kazakhstan stand in the way of the world champions from qualifying for the 2022 World Cup in Qatar.
No heebie-jeebies then – theoretically – for head coach Didier Deschamps as he prepares his men for the clash.
France top Group D boasting 12 points from six games. Ukraine are second with nine points from seven ties.
Victory over a side that has mustered only three points from three stalemates and the champagne can flow with a game to spare.
In the nightmare scenario of losing to Kazakhstan … well, it won’t be apocalypse now. France can secure their passage next week with a draw in Finland.
But it really shouldn’t come to that.
“It will be a difficult match against Kazakhstan,” said France defender Jules Kounde tactfully in the prelude to the game.
“But I hope that with the support of the fans we can make it into a night of celebration,” added the 23-year-old who was coveted by Chelsea at the start of the season.
The faithful will doubtless make their feelings quite clear should progress not be forthcoming against a side ranked more than 120 places beneath France.
When the teams met in March in Astana, Deschamps left Kylian Mbappe on the bench and started proceedings with Ousmane Dembele and Anthony Martial up front with Antoine Griezmann. A 2-0 victory ensued.
The Kazakhstan coach, Talgat Baysufinov, said the result was logical and praised his players for their application and heart against savvier opponents.
The 53-year-old is likely to repeat his encomium on Saturday night.
Since the win in Kazakhstan, Karim Benzema has been recalled to the France squad after a five-year absence due to his alleged involvement in the notorious ‘sex-tape’ affair.
And the case still hangs over the Real Madrid striker. He and four other men are waiting for a court to pronounce its verdict on charges of plotting to blackmail the former France international Mathieu Valbuena.
Earlier this week, Noel Le Graët, the boss of the France Football Federation, stoked the seemingly eternal controversy.
He said Deschamps would be able to continue picking Benzema even if he were to be found guilty of having a role in the scam.
In 2016, Le Graët was adamant that Benzema could not be selected for the team for the European championships because of the progress of the case.
Emmanuel Petit, who won the World Cup in 1998 alongside Deschamps, was furious with Le Graët’s comments this week.
“You can’t put ‘clarity’ in the same sentence as Noël Le Graët. It is not possible. It doesn’t go together,” he said on RMC Sport.
“He is never clear in what he says, in what he does, in his positions. In fact, he is a politician.”
Benzema might not play on Saturday night due to a rather prosaic concern: injury.
The 33-year-old is nursing a muscle problem and underwent a solo training session on Thursday to test the extent of his ailments.
Wissam Ben Yedder, Kingsley Coman or Moussa Diaby could replace the veteran who could yet emerge from his isolation to don the national shirt for a 93rd time.
Behind the front men, N’Golo Kante is likely to start after returning from injury. And there be a role for the 22year-old Marseille injured- Mathieu Guendozi in the absence of the Paul Pogba.
“There are a lot of very big players in the France squad,” said Guendozi who went to Marseille at the start of the campaign after falling out with the Arsenal manager Mikel Arteta.
“Some of them are the very best in the world…so by being close to them I will learn and get better.”
The absence of Presnel Kimpembe and Raphael Varane will mean Deschamps reshuffling his defensive line. Kounde could even revert to his preferred position of center back.
“That’s where I feel best,” said the Seville star. “Because it is what I’m used to. But if the coach asks me to play on the right and feels I can be of use, then that is where I will play.”
Commendable self-sacrifice. Now for the qualification.
Originally Posted on RFI